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Canada's Programs for Disabled Too Complex, Says OECD

Canadians with disabilities or health (issues) are caught in a complex web of federal and provincial programs that make it almost impossible for them to join or remain in the workforce, says a new OECD report. Few programs lift the disabled out of poverty and many seem to work at cross-purposes, says the report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which looked at the major disability benefits and services offered by Ottawa and the provinces.

To improve programs and make it easier for the disabled to get help, the report recommends better federal-provincial coordination and "one-stop shopping" offices.

The 85-page report comes on the eve of a promised Ontario review of social assistance and mirrors many of the recommendations of a provincial expert panel that called for more coordination of federal and provincial programs for vulnerable working-age people.

"Even with better coordination, there is considerable room for streamlining by making provinces fully responsible for all employment measures and programming," says the OECD report, released this week.

Like many OECD countries, the report notes Canada's benefits and services are focused on what the sick and disabled cannot do rather than on what meaningful work they are able to do. Before the recession, just 60 per cent of Canadians with health (issues) or disabilities were in the workforce and their unemployment rate of more than 16 percent was twice as high as the general population, the report says.

A spokesperson for federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the Harper government has taken "unprecedented action to support Canadians with disabilities" including the new Registered Disability Savings Program, Employment Insurance sickness benefits for the self-employed, and the Working Income Tax Benefit.

Mary Marrone, of Ontario's Income Security Advocacy Centre, welcomed the report's recommendation that Canada and other countries need to focus on people's abilities, not their disabilities. But she is concerned about the report's suggestion that countries should tie disability benefits to a person's efforts to work, even part-time. "We need to be providing real opportunities for people to work through employment support and accommodation and not make work an obligation for people with disabilities," she said in an interview.

Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy said Canada would be unwise to adopt one-stop shopping for the disabled before reforming the various federal and provincial programs. "Creating an integrated service as a Band-Aid over a dis-integrated system would just create one more layer of bureaucracy," he said. "The issue is the coordination of programs," said Mendelson. "We need to try to develop our income security system as a whole."

Reprinted from The Toronto Star, October 3, 2010, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

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