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Demanding Dignity, Not Deprivation

Editor's Note: Mike Yale is Chair of AEBC's Poverty Committee. This is reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, September 26, 2007, just prior to the re-election of Ontario's Liberal government.

More than 232,000 Ontarians with disabilities have incomes of less than $1000 each month from their disability pensions. I have noted with interest that out of the 26 billion dollars worth of campaign promises made by the present Ontario government, not one dollar is applied to help raise recipients out of the mire of poverty in which so many attempt to survive.

Such poverty leads to isolation, ill health and hopelessness for many.

Did you know that if a disability pension recipient is lucky enough to find work, 50 percent of that person's wage is deducted from the next benefits cheque? While called an incentive, such a scheme is clearly a disincentive and a dignity reducer.

Why are the disabled singled out and punished by such a ludicrous strategy?

I demand that all candidates commit themselves to introducing a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, based on the following key points:

  • Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW) rates need to be raised to provide for the real costs of living.

Despite the cost-of-living adjustments that have been made in the last few years, income support levels under ODSP have not recovered from the 12 years of decline in real purchasing power that occurred from 1993 to 2005. During this period, the value of ODSP monthly income dropped by 18%. The value of OW rates dropped more than 43%. Even with the latest increase, which recipients will only get at the end of 2007, people on social assistance will still not be able to afford safe housing or eat healthy foods.

Social assistance rates should reflect 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 other basic needs such as utilities, transportation, telephone, personal hygiene, etc. The rates should also be adjusted annually to inflation.

  • An Independent Commission should be established to make recommendations for setting social assistance rates.

ODSP and OW rates are not currently based on rational criteria such as the above measures, which would tie rates to the actual costs of living for individuals and families in need. With growing evidence of the long-term costs of poverty, experts--not politicians--should develop objective measures for determining social assistance rates. When the provincial government decided to raise MPPs' salaries, they relied on the recommendations of an independent review to determine the amount of the raise. There should be a similar process that is independent of government to recommend the appropriate criteria for determining social assistance levels.

The provincial government should establish an independent committee to develop rational criteria for determining the rates for OW and ODSP, based on the real costs of living, and commit to implementing the recommendations. This committee should include representation from recipients, disability and anti-poverty groups, and other stakeholders.

  • Low-income families need to get the full amount of the new Ontario Child Benefit more quickly, rather than getting only gradual increases over the next five years.

The new Ontario Child Benefit is scheduled to be implemented in July 2008 and is to increase gradually from $50/month/child to $90/month/child by 2011. $2.1 billion will be invested in the Ontario Child Benefit in the first five years, helping almost 1.3 million children annually, including children on OW and ODSP.

Families on OW and ODSP are struggling just to meet their basic needs. A single parent with one child on ODSP receives only $685 for shelter, while the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Ontario was $1153 in 2006.

A single parent on OW receives even less--$538. No one should have to choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids.

Families working for low wages and those struggling on ODSP and OW need the full $90/month/child now, not in 2011.

  • Accessibility of ODSP must be improved.

The Ministry of Community and Social Services is responsible for the delivery of ODSP. This is the same Ministry that introduced the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA, 2005) as a tool for achieving accessibility for all Ontarians with disabilities.

The experience of many persons with disabilities who have applied for benefits under ODSP, or who are currently in receipt of ODSP benefits, is that despite the AODA the ODSP is a program that is not fully accessible.

ODSP applicants and recipients report experiencing many barriers to access in applying to the program in receiving all the benefits that are available to them, and in receiving employment supports.

The provincial government needs to undertake a thorough accessibility audit of the entire ODSP system, as well as an audit of each individual office, including both income support and employment support. The audit must include consultation with stakeholders, including recipients, and should result in a comprehensive accommodations plan for ODSP service delivery.

An accessibility audit is a full review of how ODSP programs, services and activities are delivered to identify and remove all barriers in order to ensure that all applicants and recipients have equal opportunity to access all benefits and supports available to them under the ODSP Act. Examples of some of the barriers the audit should consider would be:

  • Are there policies or procedures that prevent someone with a disability from applying for benefits (such as requiring applicants to use the telephone to make an initial appointment, which excludes people who have no phone or have difficulty using one)?

  • Do caseworkers have a good enough understanding of the various disabilities of recipients to be able to provide any necessary accommodations?

  • Are there any eligibility requirements that tend to screen out people (such as requiring people to have large numbers of documents returned within a short time period)?

  • Does the language or format used in forms and letters make them inaccessible to some people with disabilities?

If Ontario is truly the province of prosperity and opportunity, as we are repeatedly told, then it is time to bring people with disabilities into the economic mainstream. All of us will have to deal with disability eventually, either experiencing disability ourselves as we grow older or with a member of our families. It is beyond time that we share our vast resources with the thousands who are marginalized by being forced to live in chronic poverty.

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