I don’t know how long I can do this: Disabled Ontarians still waiting on federal disability benefit

Ottawa recently reintroduced legislation to create a national disability benefit. So where is it? Written by Meagan Gillmore
Jun 21, 2022

Ronald Hoppe spent years trying to make a living in the entertainment industry; now he gets excited when he finds discounted bagels or produce.

“I’m literally living hand to mouth,” says the Kitchener resident, who’s in his late 40s, adding that he often eats just one meal a day.

In a span of eight months in 2020, his left leg and numerous toes on his right foot were amputated after a series of infections went untreated. Since then, he’s relied on government assistance. The subsequent loss of his long-term relationship rendered him homeless, and he fought to not be moved to a homeless shelter after leaving the hospital. He eventually secured a unit in a high-rise apartment that has elevator access. But his social-assistance payments won’t cover his $1,625 rent. His vision is declining because of cataracts and retinal bleeding, and these physical disabilities, combined with learning disabilities, make finding work difficult. “Without it, I’d be destitute,” he says of his rent subsidy.

Optimism is hard to come by, too. Disability supports are complicated and not something Hoppe ever thought he’d have to learn about. While he’s mastering using a wheelchair, he’s struggling with depression. “I’m new to being physically disabled,” he says. “I don’t have a roadmap to follow.”

For many Ontarians, disability is a one-way ticket to permanent poverty. ODSP rates, which aren’t tied to inflation, haven’t risen in years. A maximum monthly amount for a single adult is $1,169, with small additions made for approved needs, such as special diets or care for service animals. Wages are clawed back at a rate of 50 per cent after the first $200. Federal support programs, like Employment Insurance, are also clawed back.

Opposition parties campaigned on raising rates; Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have pledged to raise rates by 5 per cent, a promise not contained in the budget released pre-election. On June 10, the premier reiterated that increases are coming: “These people are struggling. And I’ve always said if you’re physically or mentally unable to work, I’m always going to take care of you. Always. That’s what we do here in Ontario,” he said, adding that there are thousands of jobs available for people who are willing to work. “The best way to help people is get them a job. But we are going to increase it to the rate of inflation, and we’re going to support the people that need it.”

Relief may be coming from the federal government, but details are scarce.

On June 2, the federal government reintroduced legislation to create a national disability benefit. The stated purpose of Bill-22, the Canada Disability Act, is to “reduce poverty and to support the financial security of working-age persons with disabilities.” In the September 2020 speech from the throne, the government announced its intention to create a benefit, modelled after Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, to support working-age Canadians with disabilities. Legislation to create the benefit was first introduced in June 2021, days before Parliament dissolved for the election. The Liberals included the creation of a disability benefit in the party’s election platform and in the mandate letter for Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough. The 2021 federal budget earmarked $11.9 million for a three-year consultation.

There’s a lot riding on the successful implementation of the benefit.

“We have a very good social-safety net in Canada, but this gap was identified years ago,” Qualtrough told reporters shortly after introducing the legislation. Children with disabilities receive support through the Canada Child Benefit, and seniors also receive support. “But between 19 and 64, you’re on your own,” she said. “We’re changing that.”

The legislation introduced this month, which is identical to what was tabled last year, leaves all the specifics of the benefit – including who will be eligible for the benefit, how much the benefit will be, and how it will interact with provincial and territorial social-assistance benefits – to be worked out in regulations.

The lack of details frustrates Mike Morrice, Green MP for Kitchener Centre. In February, Morrice presented a petition asking for the government to fast-track introducing legislation to create the benefit and to work with Canadians with disabilities in all phases of benefit design. The petition, started by advocacy group Disability Without Poverty, was signed by 17,874 Canadians.

“This is about trust,” he told TVO.org a few hours after the legislation was tabled. “I’m disappointed that it’s not more substantial, that after another year of consultation this is still, as the minister made clear, framework legislation. The only real difference from a year ago is that there isn’t an election looming now. I just hope they’re not playing politics with the disability community. Living in poverty doesn’t take a recess over the summer.”

In May, an NDP motion calling for the government to quickly enact the benefit passed unanimously.

Qualtrough has been clear that individuals should not lose provincial or territorial supports because of the benefit.

“I don’t want to be creating a benefit that disentitles someone from pharmacare, from their province or accessible transit or disability supports,” she told reporters in Ottawa. “We have to see not only how this benefit would interact with income support at the provincial level, but also services and other supports.”

She also told reporters that, even though the legislation is the same as the bill tabled in 2021, “we are way farther along than we were a year ago.” She noted other pressing issues, including the protests in Ottawa and the war in Ukraine. But, she insisted, “the work hasn’t stopped.”

In an emailed statement to TVO.org, the minister reiterated the need for provinces, territories, and all federal political parties to work together to create the benefit.

“Consultations with the disability community and other stakeholders, such as academics and researchers, are ongoing and will directly inform the Canada Disability Benefit. As this work continues, it’s up to Members of Parliament from all parties to work together to pass Bill C-22, and to make the Canada Disability Benefit a reality,” the statement reads in part.

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, which administers ODSP, did not say whether the government would commit to not clawing back ODSP if a national disability benefit were created.

“Our government has consistently advocated for the delivery of the federal disability benefit, and we look forward to meeting with our federal counterparts soon, and expediting its delivery,” a spokesperson for Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Merilee Fullerton told TVO.org via email.

It’s not clear when the legislation will go to second reading or when people will receive the benefit.

The lack of details in a policy framework isn’t unusual, says John Stapleton, a social-policy consultant who has written widely about disability benefits. The legislation “builds the scaffolding,” he says, while benefit structure, including eligibility, is determined in regulations and guidelines. This gives the government the ability to change the amount of the benefit without having to change the law, he says.

Stapleton, along with policy analyst Yvonne Yuan, wrote 10 short draft papers last year that examine different questions that need to be answered about the design of the benefit. These drafts, which are not public but were obtained by TVO.org, discuss matters including possible definitions of disability and whether that definition will include addictions, whether the benefit will be given to individual or family units, and how to ensure that provinces and territories don’t reduce their social-assistance programs because of a new federal benefit. In the papers, Stapleton and Yuan argue that the National Child Benefit process in the late 1990s offers a good model for how provinces and territories can work together to create a meaningful benefit that doesn’t have clawbacks. At a minimum, they say, the amount of the CDB should, at least, be equal to the amounts of the Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

“The ideal design would combine payment that approximated an income floor of $2,000 a month from all sources,” they write. But they caution that supporting people with disabilities requires more than social-assistance programs. “The reality is that real poverty reduction among people with disabilities cannot be achieved through income security measures alone.”

Despite the lack of details, the reintroduction of the legislation is still “a really big step,” says Andrea van Vugt, a member of the leadership team and Alberta Community Organizer at Disability Without Poverty, an advocacy organization dedicated to seeing a federal disability benefit created and implemented as quickly as possible. Van Vugt, who has epilepsy, says there’s an urgent need to lift people with disabilities out of poverty. “People need the money now,” she says, noting that some Canadians with disabilities are opting for medically assisted deaths because they don’t have adequate social supports. (Full disclosure: the author has done copywriting work for Disability Without Poverty’s website but has not been involved with its advocacy efforts.)

Since the benefit bill had its first reading earlier this month, Disability Without Poverty has been pushing for it to quickly go to second reading. More than 70 disability organizations have signed an open letter, co-authored by Disability Without Poverty and eight other groups, urging that the bill go to second reading before Parliament’s summer break, on June 23.

“The urgent income instability and affordability crisis facing millions of people with disabilities in Canada coupled with the high inflation especially affecting the basic goods makes bringing this legislation back for second reading a critical and time-sensitive priority,” the June 13 letter reads. “The bill’s second reading will be a milestone event that will enable C-22 to quickly move forward to its assigned Standing Committee and the remainder of the legislative process that follows.” The letter notes the few sitting days left before Parliament’s summer break and the fact that people with disabilities waited almost a year for the legislation to be reintroduced. “Our community simply cannot wait as another season passes by, not knowing whether our federal representatives will deliver on their support for the dignity and financial security of all people living with disabilities in Canada.”

Organizations that work with people with disabilities are also waiting to see what exactly the benefit will look like. Leonard Baker, CEO of March of Dimes Canada, says he’s responding to the bill with “guarded enthusiasm.” March of Dimes was one of the organizations behind the June 13 open letter. Focus-group participants have told March of Dimes they want the new benefit to be easily accessible and not subject to any clawbacks from provincial social-assistance benefits.

Original at https://www.tvo.org/article/i-dont-know-how-long-i-can-do-this-disabled-ontarians-still-waiting-on-federal-disability-benefit