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A Comprehensive Economic Strategy for Ontarians with Disabilities

Date: 
Friday, February 1, 2008

WHO IS THE AEBC?

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada (AEBC) is a national not for profit organization of Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, founded in 1992. The AEBC is very active in Ontario. Three of our 14 chapters are located in Ontario, as are three of our seven-member National Board of Directors.

The work of the AEBC focuses on public awareness and providing input on important public policy issues that affect our community. As consumers, we have come together to speak for ourselves, and to work collaboratively to improve our overall quality of life and to achieve the promise of the International Year of the Disabled Person enunciated way back in 1981 - "Full participation and equality." For further information on our organization and work, please visit our website, www.blindcanadians.ca.

BACKGROUND:

Over the past two decades, a variety of employment and other programs for persons with disabilities have been developed by various levels of government, private philanthropic associations and consumer organizations. While some individuals have benefited from these initiatives, taken together, statistics and personal stories tell us the past efforts represent a failure--persons with a disability as a whole continue to subsist in abject poverty, out of the mainstream, with an unemployment rate that remains a national disgrace in a country as affluent as Canada.

In addition, OW and ODSP rates are so low that most people can’t even cover basic necessities of rent and food. Even with much-needed recent increases, people on OW are 40% below 1995 income levels, and people on ODSP still suffer from 10 years without regular increases.

This stems in part from the fact that many government initiatives have often focused only on moving social assistance recipients into employment, rather than offering a more holistic approach that deals with the roots of poverty and exclusion from the mainstream of life in Ontario.

The Ontario Government stated in the Throne Speech (November 2007), "The Government of Ontario is committed to a Poverty Reduction Strategy with targets and measures to ensure "opportunity that is accessible to all.""

To deal with the roots of poverty, governments at all levels must take the lead in forging a new comprehensive Economic Strategy, based on a more holistic approach, that involves consumers and their organizations, and that takes into account the tenets of full inclusion and universal design. This more comprehensive Strategy must address such areas as public transportation, training, access to information, safe and affordable housing, mobility training, and most importantly the historic levels of isolation, unemployment, under-employment, and poverty which remain the reality for so many Canadians with disabilities.

However, based on the media reports we have seen and the early indicators from your government, we are concerned that the Poverty Reduction Strategy may focus only on reducing poverty for families with children, rather than taking a much broader approach that would also include people without children, such as the majority of ODSP recipients. For Ontarians with a disability, fighting our chronic level of poverty requires a comprehensive approach, which will deal with both adults and children, and that will address both income and employment issues.

A Poverty Reduction Strategy must include a plan to restore the income that people on social assistance have lost. It must also include a plan to protect income levels in the future so that people on assistance don’t continue to fall behind.

WHAT STATISTICS TELL US:

  1. The 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) reported an employment rate of 51.2% of Canadians with disabilities, versus 82.3% of those without disabilities.

    Household income averaged $52,835 for persons with disabilities, versus $72,951 for those without disabilities.

  2. An Unequal Playing Field: The Report on the Needs of People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada, released in November, 2005 reported:

    • 48% of all adult blind consumers reported gross annual incomes of $20,000 or less, regardless of marital or family status.
    • 25% of blind consumers aged 21 to 64 reported that they were employed, while 49% reported that they do not have jobs.
    • About 19.5% of working-age consumers had completed one or more university degrees, 17.8% had successfully completed high school, and 14% had achieved a community college diploma.
    • The most common barrier encountered in the employment search involved employer attitudes, 27% of working-age participants reported that employers do not see the blind applicant’s potential, and another 26% indicated that employers are unwilling to hire someone with a vision impairment.

INCOME ISSUES

First and foremost, Social assistance rates must be raised to provide for the real costs of living. OW and ODSP rates should reflect the real cost of living in Ontario, including average market rents (as determined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing corporation); the average cost of a nutritious food basket (as determined by municipal boards of health); and include money for all other basic needs such as clothing, transportation, telephone, utilities and the increasing costs of fuel.

The current provincial government has raised OW and ODSP rates three times, for a total of 7%. But the raises come after more than a decade of no increases at all to ODSP. The situation is even worse for people on OW, where rates were cut by 22% in 1995 and then frozen. So even with the recent increases, the real income of people on OW and ODSP has declined greatly when inflation is taken into account - The value of ODSP benefits for a single person dropped by 18.2% from 1992 to 2005. The value of the OW allowance for a single person dropped by 34% during the same period.

People on OW and ODSP live thousands of dollars below the poverty level. A person with a disability on ODSP lives 58% below the Statistics Canada Low Income Cut-offs (LICO's).

Poverty and the material and social deprivation associated with it, is a primary cause of poor health among Canadians. The evidence for this assertion comes from hundreds of studies in Canada and elsewhere. Ontario's Public Health Authorities have urged the provincial government to raise ODSP and OW rates for several years so that people can afford to eat nutritiously.

OW and ODSP rates should also be adjusted annually for inflation, as determine by an independent Commission that includes significant representation from OW and ODSP recipients.

The heavy claw back in the ODSP Program represents a major disincentive to seeking employment. Of equal importance to a substantial rise in benefits levels, we want to emphasize that ODSP recipients who work part time should be able to retain more of their earnings to at least bring them up to the poverty line (as defined by Statistics Canada's Low-Income Cut Off).

Currently, disabled individuals who are lucky enough to find suitable employment, lose 50 cents of every dollar they make. Half of their wages are removed from their subsequent monthly benefits cheque. The $100 employment expense payment only truly mitigates this claw back for those at the lowest earnings level. For those individuals earning at a higher wage rate, the 50% is a clear disincentive to work, and flies in the face of the Government's efforts to provide justice and dignity to persons with disabilities.

In British Columbia, recipients are able to earn $500 per month before a claw back takes effect. The AEBC believes Ontario should adopt a system that is as liberal as is offered by the Province of British Columbia.

The AEBC is also concerned that the unique challenges facing people with disabilities may be lost if reducing poverty for people on social assistance is framed mainly in terms of helping people on OW or ODSP to make the transition to work.

While the AEBC supports improvements that would make it easier and more financially rewarding for ODSP recipients to work, our experience is that the current nature of work prevents many from attaining and retaining meaningful employment. Employment incentives alone are inadequate as an anti-poverty strategy. Financial incentives to employers have proven to do little to encourage employers to be more flexible and accommodating. They have also been unsuccessful in raising the majority of OW and ODSP recipients out of poverty.

The fact that so many persons with a disability currently are unable to find a job or cannot work stems from the changed nature of the workplace, prevailing attitudes and the failure of employers to adequately discharge their obligations to accommodate the individual needs of persons who have a disability in the workplace.

STREAMLINING THE ODSP APPLICATION PROCESS:

It is generally acknowledged that the ODSP application process is involved and complex. It is even more difficult for applicants who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, as the forms are not available in various multiple formats.

All individuals applying for ODSP must obtain and complete a Disability Determination Package. Complex information is requested, which must usually be provided by a range of medical specialists, who are already overworked. Applicants may also face direct costs related to obtaining information and assistance from medical professionals, which can range from $50.00 to $120.00. Any costs associated with providing medical information during the application process should be borne by the Program.

Medical practitioners are similarly left without adequate supports and many find the package confusing and difficult to complete. Frequently, they do not understand the content of the forms or the perplexing grading systems that are used.

Across the province and even within the same delivery area, both applicants and recipients report inconsistent experiences. Some areas use fully experienced caseworkers who have a depth of knowledge with respect to persons with a disability and program eligibility criteria, while others use new staff for their call centers. This results in unequal access to discretionary benefits and opportunities for full and part time employment.

While eligibility must be determined, the process should be shortened and simplified. Forms should be provided in multiple formats, and the program should cover costs to have physicians complete medical forms.

Without regular increases to OW and ODSP rates, significant reforms to the ODSP application process, and much better access to mandatory and discretionary benefits, in our view, many singles and families with disabilities on OW and ODSP will remain mired in poverty.

LABOUR MARKET ISSUES:

  1. A NEW LEVEL OF COMMITMENT:

    The Premier of Ontario needs to demonstrate a new level of urgency and leadership to the ongoing and pervasive economic and unemployment plight of persons with various disabilities, including Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, by calling together leaders from business, labour and organizations of persons with disabilities to develop a heightened commitment, new strategies and programs, and new partnerships.

    Ontario's new Economic Strategy must cover individuals who have both visible and invisible disabilities. It must address the needs of persons with various levels of disability, (including those who are considered "severely" disabled), and should work actively to achieve employment and income rates among persons who are blind and otherwise disabled that are roughly equivalent to those of non-disabled Ontarians.

  2. THE FEDERAL ROLE:

    As part of Ontario's new Economic Strategy, the Government of Ontario should pressure the Government of Canada to participate proactively, including expanding the Employment Equity Act and Federal Contractors Program to reduce the coverage threshold from 100 employees in stages to not more than 20 employees, and they should be strengthened to provide greater results regarding the representation of persons with various disabilities.

  3. EMPLOYMENT IN THE ONTARIO PUBLIC SERVICE:

    One long-term employee in the Ontario Public Service observed:

    "I can't move higher because I have not had management experience, and I can't get management experience without opportunities. I am in a position where I have found myself before - no one knows what to do with me. Very demoralizing."

    To demonstrate a heightened commitment, Management Board must take steps to transform the Ontario Public Service into a model employer. These steps must focus on three major areas:

    • Recruitment
    • Retention
    • Promotion

    The Ontario Government should develop an aggressive proactive recruitment plan to increase the representation of persons with various disabilities at all levels, including persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted; review job descriptions to ensure that job requirements are current and job-related; develop a targeted program of internships; conduct an ongoing awareness program with managers to remove attitudinal barriers; and ensure that training is available to facilitate career progression.

  4. EMPLOYER COMMITMENT:

    Blindness remains one of the least understood disabilities. There is a need for an ongoing program to educate and gain commitment from employers province-wide for the employment, retention and advancement of workers with various disabilities, including employees who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Consumer organizations such as the AEBC must be directly involved in developing and delivering such programs. As rights holders who live our disability on a daily basis, we know best our needs and capabilities.

  5. EMPLOYMENT READINESS PROGRAMS:

    To help overcome the effects of marginalization and lack of employment opportunities early in life, targeted employment readiness programs must be made available to assist persons with various disabilities, including individuals who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, to gain access to jobs in the regular labour market. Work experience programs are particularly important for persons with limited exposure to the labor market or who have lower levels of education.

    Currently, the federal Employment Insurance Program (EI) offers some retraining and other employment supports. However, these initiatives are intended only for EI recipients. This has the effect of doubly penalizing many individuals with disabilities who have not had the opportunity to accumulate sufficient labour market attachment to qualify for EI benefits. The Ontario Government should press the Government of Canada to extend eligibility to include historically disadvantaged groups such as persons with various disabilities, or to initiate new and targeted employment support programs.

  6. ACCESSIBLE AND USABLE TECHNOLOGY:

    Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that is fully accessible and usable will increase an organization's bottom line and support the employment of all groups of Canadians.

    However, changes to existing ICT can make it impossible for current employees, particularly employees who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted, to use new technology, which threatens experienced employees and prevents new hiring. Employers, especially governments at all levels, should restrict purchases to ICT (devices and software) that are usable by all employees.

  7. WORKPLACE ACCOMMODATIONS:

    Accommodating an employee with a disability is a very individualized process. The affected employee, who often knows best what is needed, must be directly involved. The technology and solutions are known but often not used. Cost is usually far less than expected, and large employers like the Ontario Public Service can bear such costs. Federal, provincial and territorial officials should discuss the creation of a fund to assist smaller employers, but first and foremost, employers must recognize and discharge their legal obligation to accommodate employees, short of undue hardship.

CONCLUSION:

Poverty reduction makes both social and economic sense. We believe in an inclusive Ontario, where everyone can develop their talents and contribute to thriving communities throughout our Province. We want an Ontario with a vibrant economy where all Ontarians share in its prosperity.

Disability issues cut across virtually all levels of government, departments and sectors of our society. To move forward, collaboration and commitment to a comprehensive Economic Strategy are required. Employment initiatives are needed but they alone will not achieve the intended results. They must be accompanied by initiatives in other areas, such as regular raises in OW and ODSP rates, disability supports, training, housing, transportation, and the removal of disincentives in income security programs.

Disability needs are individual and a more positive climate must be created where the individual is encouraged and supported to take risks and experiment. Flexibility, consumer involvement, and coordination are the critical elements of any successful initiative to address disability issues. Governments, business, labor and the disability community must work collaboratively to find new solutions. This work requires a long-term commitment. The AEBC is anxious to play a role in realizing a new day for Canadians with various disabilities.

We urge you and your colleagues to consider our reality and develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy that addresses both income and labour market issues. It is time for people with disabilities to join the economic mainstream and to enjoy a decent quality of life. No longer should we be subjected to a life of poverty and marginalized lives in this affluent Province.

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