The B.C. government has begun a province-wide tour to collect ideas for improving conditions for disabled people, particularly by improving their job prospects.

Social Development Minister Don McRae attended the first session Monday evening in his home community of Courtenay, which drew a capacity crowd of 70 people. He plans to attend other ones in the B.C. Interior and Lower Mainland in the coming weeks.

The ministry has also established a website for public comments, and one of the more frequent suggestions is for B.C. to increase its social assistance payment to disabled people. That now stands at $906 per month, including a rent subsidy.

McRae said in an interview that major cost items like that will have to wait until B.C.’s economy improves. Meanwhile, efforts to increase employment are showing promise.

B.C. has increased the amount of income that can be earned without reducing disability benefits from $500 to $800 a month. McRae said he wants to expand on a pilot project that allows people to earn more than that for part of the year, so they can take advantage of seasonal work.

McRae, who had “social innovation” added to his title when he was appointed to the ministry last year, said he was encouraged by a meeting with a Tim Hortons franchise owner from Ontario who now employs one out of four people with disabilities in his stores.

Employees average less than a year in those jobs, but disabled employees stay an average of five years, which saves substantial money on training.

“It benefits the disability community, and it also helps his bottom line,” McRae said.

Input from the community meetings and website comments are to be used for a policy paper that will be presented at a public forum in June.

Meetings are scheduled for Prince George Tuesday and Wednesday, and in Quesnel Wednesday evening, for people registered to attend.

The nearest meeting to Merritt takes place in Kamloops on Feb. 4. Other meetings include Vernon on Feb. 5, Kelowna on Feb. 6, Richmond on Feb 11, Port Moody on Feb. 12, Abbotsford on Feb. 13, Cranbrook on Feb. 18, Fort St. John on Feb. 20, Terrace on Feb. 24, Vancouver on Feb. 25 (for hearing impaired people), and in Victoria on Feb. 26.

The website to submit a comment online or register to attend meetings is at engage.gov.bc.ca/disabilitywhitepaper.