Barbara Turnbull was 18 when she was shot during a convenience store robbery in the early 1980s, leaving her paralyzed from the shoulders down.

The experience took a physical, emotional and psychological toll, but also left her facing a future of motorized wheelchairs, attendant care and home and vehicle modifications, in addition to other medical costs and concerns. Turnbull’s expenses were covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, but not all disabilities arise on the job.

“Nothing is cheap,” Turnbull says, noting for people without coverage, a new wheelchair every five-to-seven years can cost up to $40,000. The more specialized an item, the more expensive.

Provincial coverage varies. In Ontario, for example, the province covers 75% of significant equipment costs, which could include wheelchairs, orthopaedic braces and breathing aids.

But for people with disabilities, who face challenges in supporting themselves financially, their share of such costs can quickly become overwhelming.

In the early years after her injury, Turnbull struggled to manage donations that came in after her cause garnered national attention. She wound up with a sizable amount of unpaid taxes.

Greater support

In 1991, she came to Bennett March IPC in Toronto and began working with advisors Valerie March and later Kathleen Peace.

For Peace, the process of support and planning for disabled clients runs far deeper than in her other client relationships and includes regular budget planning discussions and ensuring they’re working with an accountant experienced in disability issues.

“[The strategy] covered the bigger picture of costs, taxes and what I need to live independently,” Turnbull says. “A central part of our conversation was looking at how often I’ll need a new vehicle, and other big-ticket items.”

Still, advisors need to build a cost list that goes beyond core expenses. It can include vitamins and supplements (which can run $500 a month), physiotherapy, buying a vehicle, modifying that vehicle ($25,000), modified computers and software, and other related peripheral expenses that can easily total thousands of dollars each year.

Non-medical costs come into play as well. One of Peace’s clients has a child with special needs and spends thousands each summer to send her children to camp. “They love it, and she regains her sanity,” Peace says. “It’s a non-negotiable expense.”

Peace does a comprehensive calculation that takes into account government and employer benefits, any settlement received from a lawsuit or insurer, anticipated equipment and care costs and other expenses unique to a person’s circumstances.

Another of Peace’s clients, Carolyn Pioro, was paralyzed in a trapeze accident in 2005. She received compensation meant to cover her current and future expenses.

In investing that sum, “The general approach is similar to anyone in their 30s planning for retirement,” Peace says. “We have a basic portfolio, 60% equity, 40% fixed income, with a maxed-out TFSA and RDSP.”