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Improving Supports For People With Disabilities in Ontario

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: John Fraser is a Researcher/Policy Analyst for the Income Security Advocacy Centre in Toronto. For further information, the Centre may be reached at: 425 Adelaide Street West, 5th Floor, Toronto, ON M5V 3C1,Tel: (416) 597-5820 ext. 5150, Toll Free: 1(866) 245-4072, or their web site http://www.incomesecurity.org.

It has been a busy year and a half for disability advocates across Ontario. Led by the ODSP Action Coalition, a provincial coalition including legal clinic staff, community agency workers and people with disabilities, advocates have been fighting hard to reform Ontario's income and employment assistance program for persons with disabilities.

When the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) was established in 1998, the Province of Ontario claimed that it marked the "start of a new era of fairer treatment and more opportunity for people with disabilities." However, the program's exceedingly complex and inaccessible application process, unfair disability adjudication, inadequate employment supports and less than poverty level benefits have left Ontarians with disabilities more desperate than ever.

A key problem is that ODSP provides no supports to those needing to complete and submit the extensive documentation required to access the program. Not surprisingly, almost 40% of individuals who start the application process do not, ultimately, complete it. Of those who get all of the forms and supporting medical reports submitted on time, only about 50% can access benefits on the first try. Many must go through a lengthy appeal process to get the support they need - a process that can take longer than one year. During the wait, many applicants are forced to live on appallingly low welfare benefits, or no income at all.

Because the Province has created a complex and time consuming system while providing no supports to those needing to navigate it, community organizations and legal clinics have been forced to fill the gap. Many organizations find themselves overwhelmed with people trying to access benefits and needing assistance. Cases related to ODSP currently represent the single largest area of community legal clinic practice in Ontario.

Unfortunately, successfully accessing ODSP benefits does not end the hardships faced by disabled Ontarians. Among other things, the "lucky" ones who get on the program are forced to live on extremely low incomes. While not as shockingly low as welfare benefits in Ontario, disability benefits have not been raised for a decade and their value has eroded by close to 20% due to inflation. A single person receiving ODSP will get only $930/month - $7,500 below the poverty line annually.

The ODSP Action Coalition has been pushing and prodding the Government of Ontario to raise benefit rates, simplify the application process and provide more supports to applicants, create a fair and accountable disability adjudication system, and improve client services and employment supports for ODSP recipients.

Over the past year and a half, public forums have been held in 16 communities across Ontario to highlight the many problems with ODSP. Advocates have also been meeting with their local MPP's, municipal councils and provincial bureaucrats to press for change. To date, close to ninety organizations and municipalities have endorsed a series of recommendations for reform put forward by the ODSP Action Coalition.

In late January 2003, members of the Coalition met with the Minister of Community, Family and Children's Services, Brenda Elliott, to discuss problems with ODSP and get a commitment from the government to take action. They also presented her with a report summarizing the public forums, a list of organizations endorsing the campaign, and "Denial by Design", a report by the Income Security Advocacy Centre documenting the barriers faced by disabled people attempting to access ODSP income supports.

To her credit, the Minister acknowledged the Coalition's concerns and promised to work with advocates on these issues. In the months that followed, the Ministry established a number of work groups to address the concerns raised with respect to the application and disability "determination" processes, employment supports and ODSP client services. The work groups, which include Ministry staff and members of the ODSP Action Coalition, have been meeting regularly and, while progress has been slow, there appears to be a will to bring about change. However, an upcoming provincial election, possibly in the fall of 2003, could derail some of this work.

While the provincial government has shown some willingness to address the administrative and procedural problems with ODSP, it has been very reluctant to tackle issues related to the adequacy of disability benefits. Currently, all the Province has offered is a one time 5% increase to benefit levels. While any increase is needed and welcome, 5% would not come close to counteracting ten years of inflationary erosion of benefit levels, let alone bring income supports to a level that covers actual living costs. This is not acceptable, and disability advocates will be working to ensure that the adequacy of benefit levels is an issue in the provincial election.

The ODSP Action Coalition and disability advocates across Ontario have come a long way in the past year and a half. They should be congratulated on their hard work to make the concerns of Ontarians with disabilities part of the provincial government's agenda. As the province gears up for an election, it will be more important than ever to keep the pressure on.

Comments

Hello, I just recieved my first odsp cheque. The amount was
$966.but $ 603 was taken off. Mary Lou's explanation did not
make sense, since my rent is $140. How do I access more information as well as the remainder of my cheque?

Hello, I just recieved my first odsp cheque. The amount was
$966.but $ 603 was taken off. Mary Lou's explanation did not
make sense, since my rent is $140. How do I access more information as well as the remainder of my cheque?

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