Learning the Price of Dignity and Also the Need to Dream Big

Published On Fri Apr 9 2010

The People's Review of Social Assistance is a process led by 20 social assistance recipients to identify what's wrong with the current system and to propose improvements. The project is supported by the Daily Bread Food Bank and Voices from the Street. The Star is highlighting some of the participants in the review. Today's article is by Robin Taylor-Barrie.

I have lived in Thunder Bay my whole life. It's where I married and had a beautiful daughter. It's also where I lived in a shelter for three months after escaping my husband's alcohol-fuelled abuse. I was trying to teach at the college at the time, but the almost unbearable stress I was experiencing caused my seizures to increase to the point where I couldn't work and had to go on welfare for five years. Epilepsy and other problems such as multiple sclerosis and depression constricted my life. I felt as though I was living in a house of cards that could topple any second.

With each year my legs became weaker and I grew dependent on a walker and then a manual wheelchair. Slowly my arms, too, became unable to propel me around in that chair, so I received my first electric one. Everyone told me I should be on the Ontario Disability Support Program, but when I applied they turned me down. Someone suggested I go to the Kinna-awaya Legal Clinic, where they took on my appeal and won, though the process took about 12 months.

ODSP was so much better than welfare. It felt good to be able to buy my child the little extra treats that mirrored the foods the other children brought to school. This was a brief respite, however, as an accident caused me to lose most of my vision, leaving me legally blind.

Thunder Bay's winters are very hard for the physically disabled; the only good way to get around is in wheelchair taxis. But they are too expensive to use all the time so I spend a lot of days just lying in bed, unable to go out. I have learned that although ODSP is better than Ontario Works, it has severe limitations.

I have to use a catheter all the time as my bladder has completely shut down. Imagine how you would feel carrying a large bag of urine sloshing around everywhere you go. It's humiliating and it really diminishes your self-esteem. Then, joy of joys, someone invented an opaque cover for it, so although the tubing is visible, it leads to a black, mysterious bag at your feet. I felt my dignity was restored - nothing and no one could put a price on that. Except ODSP can and does - it will not pay the $20 it costs. So if you ever wondered about the price of dignity, ODSP has that down.

And then there are the clawbacks that essentially penalize recipients for working. After I completed an employment training program at the March of Dimes, I was privileged to be contracted by Confederation College as a "student success specialist." My job was to assist students attending the facility who were also blind. An article about me in the local paper quoted my manager as saying, "She is a positive role model ... and has provided us with some excellent perspective and advice when it comes to barrier removal for the disabled."

When my contract ended, my taxes showed that I had made $6,000 from Confederation College and only $2,000 from ODSP. But had I laid in bed all year (as I had the year before when I was too ill to work), I would have made $10,000 from ODSP. Why should people work when they can earn an extra $2,000 just lying in bed? For myself, I loved working, and some things are more valuable than money, like pride and dignity, but it makes no sense to punish those who want to be out there striving.

In November, my counsellor showed me a job ad for "community-based researchers and facilitators for change." There were more than 300 applications for the 20 positions available so I was happy just to get an interview.

It was told I would be informed by telephone before Christmas whether I got the job. As the date approached, I couldn't sleep or eat; time stood still. So I called them up to get an early Christmas gift: My dream had come true, I was one of the 20! I felt so honoured and still do.

This panel is about promoting positive change in social assistance so that people don't wait 10 years for geared-to-income housing and handicap housing; so that $3 million hospitals like the one in Thunder Bay aren't built without handicap accessible washrooms; so that everyone has decent shelter and enough good, healthy fresh food for meals every day of the month, and even transportation passes to facilitate job searches.

For me, this process strengthens my belief that there will be a time when there will be no more need to fight for accessibility, and maybe even a time when the word "poverty" will no longer be found in our vocabulary. It's important to me, to us, to you, to dream big.

Reproduced from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/792589--learning-the-price-of-dignity-and-also-the-need-to-dream-big

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