‘People Can’t Live on Dirt’: Disabled Ontarians Push for ODSP Reform

Clients are currently eligible for $1,169 a month at most. What, if anything, are the parties vowing to change? Written by Brennan Doherty
May 9, 2022

For ODSP clients like 53-year-old Toronto resident Trevor Manson, election day is among the most important times of the year. The ODSP Action Coalition, of which Manson is co-chair, does its best during election season to spotlight organizations willing to offer disabled Ontarians a lift to the polls.

“ODSP clients we know and interact with are keenly aware of the importance of voting,” he says in an email, “and do so.”

Roughly 500,000 beneficiaries in Ontario, including Manson, depend on ODSP payments. Clients on the program are eligible for $1,169 a month at most. An analysis of the program by the Maytree Foundation indicates that the income for a single client with a disability in Toronto was $3,000 a year less than the city’s Deep Income Poverty threshold of $18,500.

Regardless, disabled Ontarians who are unable to work will likely turn more and more to ODSP to survive. Ontario’s auditor general found that ODSP’s caseload grew by 50 per cent between 2009 and 2019. And the number of Ontarians with long COVID, a debilitating and sometimes disabling condition, is growing. Yet advocates say proposals from the parties this election season to meaningfully improve ODSP rates are woefully inadequate or simply nonexistent.

“The political landscape doesn’t give me much hope,” says Rabia Khedr, national director of Disability Without Poverty, a disability-rights group.

During a market research career lasting more than 20 years, Manson worked his way from the bottom all the way to senior management. But he was forced to apply for ODSP in 2015 after he was diagnosed with polyneuropathy, a neuromuscular condition that causes widespread nerve pain and uncoordinated movements. He couldn’t get on the subway to go to work or even sit comfortably in his office chair at home. “It feels like I’m walking barefoot on gravel roads all the time,” Manson says.

Today, Manson lives in a 400-square-foot apartment. To save money, he says, many ODSP clients buy coffee to suppress their appetites (and, by extension, their grocery bills). Most of the clients Manson knows eat just one meal a day. After paying rent every month, he says, he’s left with just a few hundred dollars for all his other expenses: “People can’t live on dirt.”

And the pandemic took a big toll on ODSP clients’ finances. Online shopping isn’t always accessible for disabled people and is more expensive than buying in person. “People with disabilities living in poverty are in a worse place today than they were before,” Khedr says. “And people with long COVID are joining that percentage of people with disabilities.” Faced with severe poverty, some ODSP clients are seeking medical assistance to end their lives. As Khedr put it: “People with disabilities are choosing to die with dignity rather than live without it.”

In the early days of the Ontario election, cost-of-living increases seemed to be a top priority for all the main provincial parties. One of the highlights of the Progressive Conservative budget, tabled days before the election campaign began, was softening the blow of sky-high inflation across the province. In his preamble to the budget, PC leader Doug Ford promised his government’s plan would “keep costs down and put more money into the pockets of families and seniors so they can invest in themselves, their communities, their families and in their futures.”

The party’s April budget, widely seen as its election platform, contains no references to ODSP reform anywhere in its 241 pages. When asked at an announcement in April whether he would raise ODSP rates, Ford suggested the best way to help someone who is able to work is to get them a good-paying job. (TVO.org reached out to the PCs for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.)

On Monday morning, the PCs announced they would boost ODSP rates in Ontario by 5 per cent and tie rate increases to inflation.

The ODSP Action Coalition is a provincewide group made up of legal-clinic caseworkers, agency staff, and community activists. (Facebook)

Employment programs can help some disabled people thrive in jobs, Khedr says, but they simply aren’t for everyone. “There are some people with disabilities who cannot work the number of hours required to pay their bills. There are some people with disabilities who simply cannot work given the nature of their disability. And there are some individuals who don’t understand the concept of work, given their disability. We have a duty to every one of them to make sure that they can live with dignity.”

Over the weekend, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca promised he would boost ODSP rates by 20 per cent over two years, as well as allow ODSP clients to earn up to $6,000 without losing 50 per cent of their benefits to clawbacks. At the moment, that limit is just $200.

In its full campaign platform released in April, the NDP vowed to boost ODSP rates by 20 per cent immediately and legislate that any future raises must be indexed to inflation. For someone earning ODSP’s maximum, that would add to about $1,400 a month. “It would be the biggest increase ever for people with disabilities in Ontario,” Manson says.

It is the Greens who offer perhaps the most ambitious plan: an immediate doubling of ODSP rates. That would bring Ontario’s disability-benefits maximum to just over $2,200 a month although Manson is pessimistic about their odds. “The Greens really have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the election,” he says. “Really, they can say anything.”

Original at https://www.tvo.org/article/people-cant-live-on-dirt-disabled-ontarians-push-for-odsp-reform