The disabled are the forgotten poor

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Wed Jul 07 2010.   By Carol Goar,  Editorial Board

Spare a thought — or a bit of your Wednesday afternoon, if you can — for the quarter of a million disabled Ontarians who live in government-imposed poverty.

They receive welfare under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but it doesn’t bring them up to the poverty line. It leaves a single person 30 per cent below the low-income cut-off set by Statistics Canada; a couple 10 per cent below; and a couple with a child 5 per cent short.

The government’s solution: employment incentives.

The trouble is, the vast majority of these people cannot work full-time. Many can’t work at all.

This afternoon, from 2 to 4 p.m., 80 to 100 ODSP recipients and their caregivers will gather in the rotunda of Metro Hall to tell their stories and tell their government a disability should not be a poverty sentence. Members of the public are welcome.

There will be a panel discussion, personal accounts of life on ODSP and the release of a disability declaration drafted by the ODSP Action Coalition, a province-wide network of disability rights activists. (I’ll serve as moderator.)

Most Ontarians know little about this quiet minority. People who rely on a monthly ODSP cheque rarely speak out for fear their benefits will be chopped. They don’t expect the rest of the population to understand what it’s like to be trapped in poverty because of a debilitating disease, an accident or a mental disorder.

But a brave vanguard is breaking the silence. Last year, the ODSP Action Coalition held a conference called Leading the Way in which a handful of ODSP recipients talked about their lives, the way they are treated by government caseworkers and their modest dreams: new glasses, a blood pressure gauge, a phone, a TTC Metropass. It was an eye-opening session.

This year, more are raising their voices. Here are some of the indignities they’ll talk about:

The application process for ODSP is so onerous that many people with severe disabilities never get benefits.

To fulfill the government’s requirements, they must prove that they are in financial need and they have a “substantial” disability. They need bank statements, income tax returns, receipts for household and medical expenditures, employment records (if they’ve ever worked) and a list of all family assets. They must also have a doctor’s report that describes and assesses their disabilities.

For anyone who is homeless, illiterate, doesn’t have an OHIP card or doesn’t have a doctor, the only hope of getting over this hurdle is to find someone who can round up long-lost documents and get a medical appraisal.

Staying on ODSP is difficult, too. Every aspect of a recipient’s life is under scrutiny.

If he or she forms a relationship with a non-disabled person, for instance, the new partner is expected to take responsibility for the recipient’s support and medication costs. This means many people with disabilities are unable to find a mate.

Working part-time, as 11 per cent of ODSP recipients do, can lead to a host of problems.

The most serious is eviction. The government allows ODSP recipients to keep 50 per cent of their earnings. But their rent goes up 100 per cent for every dollar of income if they live in social housing. Their only choices are to work less or give up their apartment.

A second headache arises if an ODSP recipient’s caseworker is slow to report that he or she has earned income. That results in an “overpayment.” When it is discovered, the person’s monthly benefit is chopped until it is repaid.

But it is not these punitive rules that ODSP recipients hate most. It is the fact that they’re stigmatized, isolated and poor for reasons beyond their control.

(More information is available at www.odspaction.ca)

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