What Matt Wolf got wrong about ADHD and AISH

Last September, Jason Kenney’s executive director of issues management said some things about AISH that weren’t quite correct.

Last September, Matt Wolf, the executive director of issues management for the Alberta premier, tweeted out the following regarding Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped programme.

He doubled down in a thread with his rhetoric that not everyone who’s on AISH is “severely handicapped”.

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A reader recently sent me some data regarding AISH recipients, which they received from the Community and Social Services department at the Alberta government. This data includes case information for 2019 for all those who are on AISH, as well as high-level information for other years.

This dataset showed a total file count of 73,610 regarding primary diagnostic frequency in 2019. Of those, only 1,249 diagnoses were for learning disabilities. And that’s for all learning disabilities, not just the ADHD that Wolf listed in his tweet. That means that all learning disabilities accounted for only 1.7% of all primary diagnoses among the 2019 files.

The numbers for anxiety are similar: 1,473 or 2%. Both anxiety and ADHD make up such a small percentage of people on AISH.

But even so, Wolf’s Twitter thread misses a larger point: while ADHD and anxiety may be portrayed as benign, they can be debilitating—or at the very least, can interfere with your ability to perform at work.

As someone with both ADHD and anxiety, I understand how these can interfere with one’s ability to hold down a job.

I once worked in a high-pressure work environment that was also morally caustic. It led to crippling anxiety and depression, to the point that I dreaded going to work and I was bedridden nearly the entire time when I was at home. And I don’t mean the Garfield-I-hate-Mondays type of dread that most people have on Sunday night and Monday morning. I mean the type that caused me to plot ways to leave, to be desparate to find a new job. The type where you’re grateful for a full bladder so you can hide in the washroom for 5 minutes to cry and catch your breath. Literal dread.

And even after I left, it took months before driving past (or even near) that workplace wouldn’t trigger panic attacks.

My ADHD isn’t really debilitating, but it has made me forget plenty of things. I’ve not only left our van unlocked many times but occasionally left a side door or even the back tailgate wide open, sometimes overnight. I’ve left the stove or oven on more than once, narrowly missing starting a fire. And don’t get me started on the number of appointments I’ve missed because I forgot about them, or being unable to focus on tasks at hand.

Again, mine isn’t debilitating, and I generally can get by without medication, but I can totally see how someone with debilitating ADHD can have a difficult time holding down a job, especially if their attention, memory, impulsivity, and emotional challenges are pretty intense and they don’t respond to medication.

In fact, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, workers with ADHD are 30% more likely to have chronic employment issues, 60% more likely to be fired from a job, and 3 times more likely to quit a job impulsively. Plus, apparently, adults with ADHD may lose an average of 22 days of productivity per year.

Similarly, WebMD reports that adults ADHD averaged 5.4 jobs in a 10-year period, compared with 3.4 jobs for those without ADHD. As well, more than 4 in 10 people with ADHD have lost jobs or left them due to their symptoms.

So, while ADHD (or anxiety for that matter) may not be serious for the people Wolf knows, it doesn’t mean it isn’t serious for those who have it as their primary diagnosis and are on AISH.

Further to that, the dataset sent to me showed that in 2019, only 25.6% of all AISH files had only 1 diagnosis. That means that 3 out of every 4 persons on AISH in 2019 had 2 or more diagnoses. In fact, just under half had at least 3 diagnoses.

In other words, just because they have ADHD (or anxiety, or any other condition Wolf considers not severe) as their primary diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that it’s their only diagnosis. Even if their ADHD isn’t that severe, it could still interfere with their ability to work when combined with other comorbidities.

Wolf made a few other claims in his Twitter thread that I wanted to address briefly.

For example, he says that “if someone has a condition but can work — even part-time — they shouldn’t be deterred from working.” AISH doesn’t discourage people from working; the AISH guide even explicitly encourages recipients “to work as much as you are able”. In fact, last year saw a monthly average of 10,801 AISH recipients employed.

He also said that “to lump all individuals with disabilities in with those who are truly severely handicapped focuses on what they cannot do, vs what they can do.” Except AISH doesn’t do this. In 2018, for instance, there were 12,684 AISH applications: only 61.8% of them were approved. In 2019, that percentage dropped to 59.4%. Clearly, not everyone who applies for AISH is considered to have a severe enough diagnosis.

Finally, Wolf claimed that “AISH as it stands now is lifetime enrollment, with no reconsideration”. However, the AISH guide states that applicants can’t get AISH if they’re eligible for Old Age Security. Plus, according to a report published last month, those 65 and older make up only 0.9% of AISH recipients.

The guide further cautions that “if you are approved for the AISH program, you may need to show you are medically eligible again at a later date.” So this claim isn’t quite true.

In fact, there’s very little in his Twitter thread that is true.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

5 replies on “What Matt Wolf got wrong about ADHD and AISH”

I have two ADHD children. One who is severe with learning disabilities and the other who has a mild case but has mixed symptoms, including anxiety, depression and oppositional defiance disorder. I have always taught them they may have to work different or harder but they should not use it as excuse. The eldest with severe ADHD and learning disabilities works in the trades (an electrician) and has always been employed full time. The younger one who has mixed symptoms is in university and is an honour student. There are so many types of medications for ADHD now so it should be a matter of getting the right medication and dosage, rather than excuses for many, There will be cases where there are other deliberating issues absolutely. I had a tenant on AISH who was in college and point blank said he didn’t want to work, not even part time. It is not easy to get AISH but at the same time there are cases when they do have the ability to work (obviously if they can handle college courses they are fit to work) and should not be getting funded through AISH.

Seriously? Not everyone can take ADHD medication or it does not work for them. Your statements are very judgmental. So your kids can work, does not mean everyone can. I like your fake story about the tenant on AISH who you said didn’t want to work. You know how many times I have heard that fake story. Why would he or she be in college. Quit demonizing those on AISH and maybe worry more or corporate welfare.

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