Government disability policies work at cross purposes

Posted on March 27, 2015 in Inclusion Policy Context – opinion/columnists
March 25, 2015.   Randall Denley

Let’s get this straight. The federal government’s extension of a program that pays people with disabilities $1.15 an hour is not a good news story. It’s the continuation of an outdated attitude that says disabled people need a sheltered work environment and if you give them a few dollars and a pat on the head, they’ll be happy.

Seriously, how can the federal government in good conscience pay anyone $1.15 an hour to do document disposal work that needs to be done and, if this program were to be cancelled, would be done by other workers making regular wages?

Call it an honorarium if you like, but there is no moral foundation for paying wages that would be rejected by the average child, just because the workers have disabilities.

The ostensible reason for the mini-pay, and the ultimate stupidity in this whole situation, is a provincial government rule that claws back half of every dollar of earnings for many people with disabilities, beyond a meagre $200 a month limit. The Ontario Disability Support Program pays a single person a maximum of $1,098 a month to cover their food and shelter needs, then discourages them from working to make enough to support themselves.

Ontario is one of three provinces with a standalone disability support program. Most provinces pay welfare to people with disabilities. A separate program is good, but it pays only a little more than welfare.

B.C. and Alberta both take a more reasonable approach. In B.C., a single disabled person is able to earn $9,600 a year without having his disability pension reduced. The limit is far more generous than Ontario’s and, being annual, doesn’t penalize people who take short-term jobs. Alberta provides up to $1,588 a month to a disabled person and the first $800 of monthly net employment income is exempt from claw back.

Ontarians imagine themselves to be generous and caring, but when it comes to people with disabilities, we are Scrooges. Without enough money to support themselves, disabled people must rely on the goodwill of social service organizations or family members to survive.

Disability is a big catchall that includes a lot of types of people with varying degrees of mental and physical disability. About one Ontarian in seven has some kind of disability. Any of us is just a disabling disease or an accident away from becoming disabled ourselves. Is this how we would want to be treated?

By comparison, we understand that seniors need enough money to survive and have a support system that is relatively generous, compared to what people with disabilities receive.

According to federal statistics, the poverty rate for people with a disability is 14.4 per cent, more than twice the rate for seniors. The federal government does partially claw back its Old Age Security payment for seniors, but not until incomes exceed $71,000. Disabled people below the poverty line have income clawed back by the provincial government. How can that be right?

In another example of governments working at cross purposes, people with disabilities who have spent time in the work force are eligible for a CPP disability benefit, but the province reduces its payments by an equal amount.

The really frustrating part is that government should want to encourage people with disabilities to work. A recent federal government study found that there were 795,000 working-age Canadians who are not working but whose disability doesn’t prevent them from doing so. Almost half of these people had postsecondary education.

In many areas, Canada is short of workers. Getting the disabled into the work force not only provides them with dignity and needed money, it helps our economy, too.

Forward-looking employers have already realized that and are specifically seeking out people with disabilities because they are reliable workers who are less likely to switch from employer to employer. The experience of the paper-disposal workers in Ottawa is an example of that.

The way governments in this country treat disabled people is not only morally wrong, it doesn’t make economic sense, either.

Randall Denley is a strategic communications consultant and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at

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