Changing disability definition a dangerous mistake that will harm thousands

Posted on April 8, 2019 in Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
April 8, 2019.   By

Claire came into my office last week, for the fourth time in two months. She was sad, very sad, actually clinically depressed. She’s 32, works as a waitress, and couldn’t face another shift. She wanted a note off work for two weeks to focus on battling her dark mood.

This is the fifth time in the last year she has had to take time off work. That’s what depression can do. It can descend like a heavy, dark cloud. It’s mostly invisible to everyone else but can stop people in their tracks — for days, weeks, even months.

I have been trying to help Claire through her depression for a decade. Medications have helped, but not enough. She has done months of therapy, but her illness keeps breaking through.

She needs to work. She barely makes $25,000 a year. She has savings to take her through two months off work. She has no one else to ask for help. After that she’ll be on the streets. This stress doesn’t help her illness.

Last week I suggested she apply for the Ontario Disability Support Program. ODSP would give her something to fall back on when she can’t work. And it will allow her to earn money when she can.

She’d resisted this before, because she didn’t want to feel dependent on the system, but this time she agreed to let me fill out the application. She’s been through this cycle enough times that she can see she needs to plan for a future with periods of disability.

And if she doesn’t apply now, she might not be able to in the future.

The government of Ontario is looking to change the definition of disability for ODSP so it would stop people like Claire from applying.

Right now, people can apply for ODSP if they have a disability that is expected to last at least a year and affects them all the time or intermittently.

Under the government’s expected new definition, people will only qualify if they have a disability that is “severe and prolonged.” This means they can’t work now and it is unlikely they will ever work again. This new definition would leave Claire, and tens of thousands like her, without support.

Claire will have to depend on Ontario Works, basic welfare, when her savings run out. OW will give her half the income of ODSP and force her to spend her time showing she is looking for work rather than healing from her illness.

The deep poverty and intrusiveness of OW will condemn her to an even deeper cycle of desperation, and make it much, much harder to return to a functioning life.

The government is holding consultations on these changes right now. We do not know who has been invited. And we have no commitment that what they are told will be made public.

From what I hear, these discussions are not focused on whether the change to “severe and prolonged” should be made, but on how to bring it about.

I am nervous that the government has already decided to change the definition of disability, and that people like Claire are going to be left without the supports they need. This will leave Claire, who has every potential for recovery, to focus not on her mental health, but rather on a desperate battle for survival — just to pay her rent and buy food.

And it should leave anyone who cares about those who suffer from arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer, mental illness, addictions, and many other conditions that can disable people intermittently, or from which they may recover in a few years, extremely worried.

ODSP is nowhere close to perfect. There are lots of changes that would make the program better able to support the recovery and lives of those living with disabilities. Changing the definition of disability would do the opposite.

Gary Bloch is a family physician and an associate professor with the University of Toronto.

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