Category Archives: Disability Studies

Looking back at what (may) be ahead: Reduced non-income benefits for recipients of ODSP

As I wrote in my last post, details of the Ontario government’s reform of social assistance – and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), specifically – are unclear.

A large anxiety around social assistance reform is understandably focused around  assistance rates – that is, the actual dollars recipients receive.

Yet as Ricardo Tranjan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives writes in the Behind the Numbers blog, “It appears that the current government’s plan is more sophisticated but equally perverse to that of the previous Harris government: it aims to push social assistance recipients with disabilities into a cheaper program with fewer supports.”

But what are “cheaper programs”? Here, a little history goes a long way to understanding what may be ahead.

As of December 31st 2012, the (then) Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty ceased the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB). This was in addition to the removal of payment of some home repair costs (at the same time), and the prior removal of the Back to School and Winter Clothing Allowance back in 2008.

The CSUMB enabled single recipients to receive $799 and families $1500 every two years for benefits such as establishing a place to live and preventing eviction and the shut off of essential utilities, among others.

In its place, 50 percent of the funds were disbursed to municipalities. The Province also provided one-time funding of $42 million; this was rolled into the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative that, “[Combines] funding from former separate housing and homelessness programs into a single flexible program [that] can be used [...] to address local priorities and better meet the needs of individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in their local communities.”

Yet as the Income Security Advocacy Centre cautioned at the time, “There is no guarantee that the money will be paid in direct assistance to people who need the funds. Municipalities may decide that their own local needs are different, and use the money to pay for shelter programs, seniors housing, or other, equally important programs – but not for direct payments.”

The policy direction away from direct payments is one that has long frustrated anti-poverty activists – which is why there was some measured optimism regarding the now-cancelled Basic Income Pilot.

While I do not wish to suggest that a basic income is a silver bullet, it does point to the value in providing people with lower incomes additional funds that they may use to meet their most pressing needs.

So, if CSUMB is lost, there’s nothing else to lose, right?

Not exactly.

There are a range of other direct benefits that are currently available to recipients of ODSP. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Employment and Training Start Up Benefit (ESUB) & Up -Front Child Care Benefit – Up to $500/month every 12 months to “help recipients begin and change employment” and reimbursement of “up-front” and “reasonably neccessary” childcare costs

  • Heating costs, “If the heating costs alone exceed the maximum shelter allowance the amount payable will be the actual cost of heating.”

  • Payment of the “consumer’s contribution” and professional assessment to receive eligible assistive devices under the Assistive Devices Program

  • Employment Transition Benefit – A lump sum of $500 for “Recipients who exit Income Support due to income from employment, training, or operation of a business”.

It remains to be seen if these will remain benefits directed to recipients, or disbursed to separate programs with their own varying (and potentially watered-down) criteria.

Other benefits (such as drug and dental, among others) may be merged into “health spending accounts”. As I noted in my last post, “[A] block [grant] can be good – provided the the money lasts”.

As it stands, recipients are entitled to various benefits.

Now, the government may be more selective about what those benefits are, circumstances in which recipients may access them, and funding available to provide these benefits.

Reform may, in the end, be a matter of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

Details are still unclear, it’s true – but the past can be a helpful compass, too.

Social Assistance Reform in Ontario and Recipients with Disabilities: The coast is (un)clear

Earlier today, the Ontario government announced its framework for changes to social assistance for people on Ontario Works (OW, commonly understood as welfare) and for people on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

So, what does this all mean, for ODSP recipients in particular?

“The goal is to transform the welfare program into the job-connection service it is supposed to be,” writes Randell Denley of the National Post.

That is, similarly to the previous Liberal government’s Brighter Prospects report in 2012, the focus is on employment (I gave my (skeptical) views on “Pathways to Employment” before).

For people on ODSP who are working, the government’s plan to provide an annual exemption of $6000 on income is welcome – but then, there’s the clawback of 75% of every dollar of income past that point, as opposed to 50%; the rationale here is not clear.

[1 December 2018 update: Ricardo Tranjan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives writes, "The Ontario government is increasing the employment earnings exemptions for both programs. From $200 to $300 a month for OW and from $200 monthly to $6,000 annually for ODSP. This measure would have been a positive change, if the government had not raised clawback rates on earnings above these amounts from 50% to 75%. [...] [Social] assistance recipients will be taxed more on their employment incomes as a result of these changes.”]

That the threshold was actually reduced for people on OW – from $400 per month to $300 per month, from what the previous government was planning – is curious, given that the supposed intent of the exemption in the first place is to incentivize workplace participation. As the Toronto Star notes, “[Those] on welfare will see their benefits reduced by 75 cents for every additional dollar they earn instead of the current 50 cents. That means people will hit the point that they’re no longer eligible for welfare sooner; ultimately, that may reduce the incentive to seek more work.”

For those who receive ODSP benefits, I suspect this change will not lead to a massive increase in their long-term participation in the workplace.

The core challenge, in my view, is the inaccessibility of the workplace for so many.

People with disabilities have many skills, passions, and much motivation – but not the flexible, open, and inclusive spaces to enable them to use them, and get paid fairly for doing so.

Other commitments made include:

Redesigning ODSP to consolidate complex supplements and benefits into simplified financial support for people with severe disabilities. 

Many recipients will testify that the system for accessing benefits is indeed complex. But what constitutes “simplification”?

As the Income Security Advocacy Centre writes regarding as-yet-to-be-defined “Health Spending Accounts”, “It is not clear whether this new amount will replace current mandatory and discretionary health-related benefits that help people access items like diabetes supplies, incontinence supplies, medical travel, and other necessities. No information is available for how much this benefit will provide, how people will qualify for it, and how they will access it.”

That is, “simplification” could result in a block grant to pay for services.

Yet as people who run out of entitlements for paramedical services in employer-sponsored plans well know, a block can be good – provided the the money lasts.

What would be truly unfortunate is if entitlements to services where recipients do not have to pay out of pocket are removed. Recipients are particularly financially vulnerable, and faced with the obstacle of paying for a service they can no longer afford, may have to turn to charitable organizations for funding, or do without.

Providing clarity to the system around who qualifies for ODSP in the future and looking at aligning Ontario’s new definition of ‘disability’ more closely with federal government guidelines.

This is interesting in that what constitutes these “federal government guidelines” is not clear.

Indeed, earlier this year, the Senate issued a report calling for broader criteria for determination of the Disability Tax Credit.

This suggests that eligibility for ODSP – even though present Program recipients will be grandfathered – may become more restrictive.

What is most telling is what was not in the framework: information on potential future increases to ODSP rates.

Commitments to better link needed services are welcome in theory – but details are not provided.

As the last line of the framework reads, “More details about the changes to social assistance will be available in the coming months.”

So, in sum:

Some signals – but no details.

Accessible Outreach to Persons with Disabilities

Below are some high-level, barrier-free tips for reaching out to persons with disabilities.

Trust the Experts: People with Disabilities

People with disabilities themselves know best what supports, if any, they need.

Ask if you may provide assistance. Listen to what they say. If you can provide a support, do so.

If, after every reasonable effort, you cannot provide a requested support, work with the person to find the next best solution.

Consider Cost

Many people with disabilities live at or below the poverty line. Consider reduced or no-cost tickets for paid events.

Consider ALL Disabilities

Remember that there are a wide range of disabilities – and that many Canadians have more than one.

Disabilities can be visible and non-visible, and may be permanent or temporary.

Different disabilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Mobility disabilities
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Intellectual / Developmental
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Mental Health
  • Environmental Sensitivities, such as allergies to perfumes and colognes

Consider ALL barriers. These include buildings, documents, websites, policies, and attitudes.

Build relationships. Take the time to meet representatives of disability organizations and find out the issues of the day.

Liaise with the Party’s Persons Living with Disabilities Committee for leads and best practices.

Use “Person First” Language

Instead of “The disabled”, say, “People with disabilities”.

Use “Person with [a particular disability]”.

Also see A Way with Words and Images.

Use Plain Language

Plain language is not overly-simplified language – it’s clearly saying what you mean.

For more information, visit www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca and search “plain language”.

Hold Events at Barrier-Free Facilities

Consider ramps, door openers, bathrooms and parking. Consider the interior and exterior.

Place “We Share the Air” Posters at Events

Also remind people to refrain from wearing perfumes and colognes in invitations and notices.

Welcome Service Animals

Service animals provide assistance to people with disabilities. While some are dogs, there are others.

Provide a water bowl for service animals at events

Provide a Quiet Area

For large events, provide a quiet area, with a chair, bed, cups and water.

Use People with Various Disabilities in Communications Images

Include people who use wheelchairs, but include others as well – such as persons using service animals, or people communicating with sign language.

Use Accessible Videos

Accessibility benefits everyone – including people who see videos without audio on social media feeds.

To this end, open captioning is hugely beneficial.

Include a link to download a transcript, and be sure to describe relevant images within the video in the transcript as well.

This resource provides other accessible social media tips:

Use Accessible Documents

Documents (Word or PDF) should have:

  • Sans-Serif fonts like Arial
  • Proper heading structure, and linked tables of content, if documents are long
  • Alternative text for images to ensure that everyone can access information
  • Data of numerical graphics also provided in text, lists or tables
  • Colour contrast

Provide Sign Language and Other Supports Upon Request

American Sign Language (for English speakers) and Langue des signes québécoise (for French speakers) should be provided upon request. For large events, consider having interpreters on hand.