A Pathway to Prosperity – or Poverty?

Potential Challenges to “Pathways to Employment” for ODSP Recipients in Ontario

Pathways to Employment.

At first glance, the term evokes:

  • A sense of purpose: participation in the labour force.
  • The removal of impediments: ease in getting there.
  • The provision of customized approaches: each person is different – and so is each path – therefore, each person will get the supports he or she needs.

Employment of people with disabilities is all the rage with the federal and Ontario governments. The federal government convened a Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities that issued its report, Rethinking Disability in the Private Sector and as part of the 2013 budget, Ontario has convened its Partnership Council on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities.


There’s a feeling of déjà vu about all of this: the notion that people with disabilities can and want to work. It makes good business sense, we’re told. People with disabilities make, in general, very productive, loyal employees, and the cost of accommodations need not be that high.

To those that work with people with disabilities, this is not new. It’s true that attitudinal barriers exist – but there are also structural barriers as well.

Where is this push within government coming from? I suggest it is in the context of austerity.

In 2011 – as Ontario continued to weather uncertain economic times – the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario released its final report, Brighter Prospects. The report found that, in June of 2012, 415,338 people were accessing the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – at a cost of $3795 million and growing – in financial assistance payments alone.

The aggregate costs are substantial – but for recipients, it’s a different story.

For those on the main social assistance program for low-income Ontarians with disabilities – the Ontario Disability Support Program – benefits are very limited. For a single person, the basic rate is $607 a month – with a shelter allowance maximum of $479 a month – for a total of $1086. While other benefits such as assistance with heating, dental, drug, and assistive devices costs exist as outlined in these policy directives , most Ontarians would be hard pressed to live well on such meagre support.

The number of recipients on ODSP receiving income from employment is low, according to the Social Assistance Review Commission: only 10 percent.

Yet the overall labour force participation of adults with disabilities is low: as of 2009, the employment rate for adults with disabilities aged 15+ or those employed all year is 44.1 percent – this is in contrast to those without disabilities at 64 percent – essentially, a 20 point gap, according to the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s report, Report on Equality Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

And it gets worse: “In general, adults with disabilities have a lower after-tax income than adults without disabilities. More specifically, the median income for women with disabilities aged 15 to 64 is $8,853 less than it is for women without disabilities. For men with disabilities, the median income is $9557 less than it is for men without disabilities in the same age group” (p. 22).

Granted, this is national data – but the trend of major barriers is clear for people with disabilities: low participation in the workforce overall, less income for those who are working, and increasing costs for social assistance programs that provide poverty-level supports to recipients.

It’s therefore easy to see why governments at all levels are looking to increase employment rates among people with disabilities: in large part, to reduce public expenditures at a challenging economic time.


Generally, reform of social assistance has meant a reduction in benefits. While the provincial government did increase ODSP rates by 1 percent in 2012 this was preceded by stricter criteria for the Special Diet Allowance and followed by the phasing out of the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit.

While the province now permits recipients to keep the first $200 of paid employment a month without reductions in income support benefits – it is unclear how much of an incentive this is to increase workforce participation. It may increase the number of people working – but not significantly decrease the number of people receiving income support from ODSP.

Recipients can be forgiven for asking if social assistance reform is really about increasing income security through paid employment – or reducing social assistance caseloads.

The Social Assistance Review Commission rightly recognized that the unavailability of extended health benefits in the labour market may act as a disincentive for many on social assistance to leave social assistance: “In order to fully transform the system, disability benefits, children‘s benefits, and extended health benefits should be removed from social assistance and be made available entirely outside the system. Providing these vital benefits to all low-income individuals and families would eliminate structural barriers for people trying to exit social assistance for work” (p. 17). It also recommended a disability benefit to assist eligible, low-income persons.

Yet given that the Ontario government has not done these steps at the time of writing, it may be argued that it is focusing on other – arguably simpler – reforms such streamlining employment services through municipalities.

However, in it’s report, the Commission gave the impression that it was simply a matter of “meeting employers needs” and providing customized supports that would make the difference – that is, through “Pathways to Employment”.

Longstanding, structural barriers to the labour market were, I suggest, not sufficiently recognized by the Commission, despite its push for a “distance from the labour market approach” whereby customized supports are provided.

The Commission recommended that “Pathway to Employment” plans be “completed by all social assistance recipients”, that they “indicate clear and achievable employment goals and identify the steps towards reaching these goals” through “planned activities”, “integrated services and supports” benchmarked with “relevant states” that “highlight all accomplishments and progress towards achieving goals” (p. 47).

Tellingly, the Commission recommended that, “in order to receive income support, social assistance recipients be required to participate in activities preparing for and finding work as set out in their Pathway to Employment Plans. Plans should be realistic and take into account the circumstances of individual recipients, including the barriers to employment they face” (p. 50).


There are five core difficulties with this approach:

1) Establishing what goals and circumstances are “realistic”

One need only look across the pond to Great Britain, where social assistance reform in the form of Personal Independence Payments has led to major claims backlogs – as well as hotly contested views of what “ability to work” means.

There has been, to put it mildly, some pushback from disability advocates.

Crucially, what are the metrics for establishing what goals and circumstances are “realistic”? What guarantees will be put in place to ensure those that cannot work due to pain, fatigue – and many other challenges – are not denied the supports they need?

Fundamentally, how will these metrics be developed? Who will be deemed “deserving” of support? Who will be left out?

2) Determining what “supports” will be provided

Among people with disabilities who could work, major impediments exist. For people with physical disabilities, two major challenges are:

  • Limited accessible transportation options to get to and from work in a timely manner; and
  • Limited attendant services to provide support in the workforce with personal care and office tasks.

While government may encourage employers to “open their minds” and fight internal prejudices, or to provide accommodations in the form of “flexible hours” to enable workers with disabilities to preserve their energy or what have you, there are broader, pervasive barriers.

Changes in workplace culture will not be enough.

Who will provide the resources – outside of “savings” from welfare reform – to provide these supports?

3) Mandatory participation in Pathways

This stipulation implies that there are a large number of people with disabilities on social assistance who simply won’t help themselves to supports, and improve their conditions. This is despite the fact that the existing system does not provide a strong incentive for paid employment, given that many recipients who would leave may be poorly paid and precariously employed.

Ultimately, if Pathways were made voluntary, the evidence would speak for itself: a truly successful initiative would have people signing up.

A truly non-successful initiative would indicate major challenges – and would compel policy makers to find solutions.

But more crucially, if a recipient does not participate, will he or she be forced into destitution?

As Mary Marone of the Income Security Advocacy Centre said when the Commission released its report, “Yes, people with disabilities need improved access to the labour market and they need improved employment services, as recommended by the report […] But they don’t need more rules that could jeopardize their ability to pay the rent and put food on the table.”

4) Measuring participation in Pathways

Similarly to challenges establishing the metrics for “realistic” goals, what are the metrics for measuring “participation”?

Is it requiring recipients to attend interviews? Will supports be provided to ensure transportation? Will allowances be made if the person is in great pain, and cannot attend? If so, what does this look like?

5) Accountability for structural challenges in the labour market

In our current, uncertain economic times, it’s no secret that finding – and keeping – paid employment that pays the bills can be hard.

This is true for people with – and without – disabilities.

What happens if a recipient participates in a Pathway, and is pressured to take a low-paying job that depletes him or her of energy? What happens if that person becomes sick?

Even worse: what if there are no jobs to be found? What happens then?

These concerns are far from theoretical. As the ODSP Action Coalition notes:

“Being accepted as “disabled” for ODSP does not necessarily mean you cannot work at all, but people have to show that they have very serious health problems which makes it very difficult for them to work, or function in the community or manage their personal care. Yes, some recipients could work part time or even full time – if employment supports were better, if employers really gave them whatever accommodations they need, and if there are suitable jobs for them in their community. But that is not the reality today. Until accessible jobs with the necessary accommodations are readily available for people with disabilities, no one should have their income reduced or suspended if they do not follow a plan for getting employment that is set up by their worker […]The way to get more people with disabilities to work is to give them the help they need and to reduce the barriers to working that they experience. There is no need to punish people or cut off their income. All that would do is make them poorer and more desperate.”

In closing, this much is clear:

  • Ontarians with disabilities are disproportionately more likely not to be active in the workforce, compared to those without disabilities.
  • Even if they do work, Ontarians with disabilities are disproportionately more likely not to be paid as much, compared to those without disabilities.
  • A focus on employment may be rooted more in delivering cost savings in the area of social assistance – rather than provide the supports required for success.
  • Government may look for more “quick fixes” to structural barriers in the labour market rather than provide the truly customized supports needed for success.
  • Pathways to Employment, as proposed, are poorly articulated. There is a need to clearly establish flexible criteria and metrics for success.
  • A truly successful Pathway to Employment would be sought out – there is no need to make them mandatory.
  • Not everyone can – or should – work. Pathways to Employment, if made mandatory to receive social assistance, may hurt more than help.

This is not to say that changing attitudes won’t make a difference – it will. Employers should be encouraged to “see beyond” disability, and to focus on the skills and aspirations of people with disabilities.

It’s a start – but it doesn’t go far enough.

This is not to say that there are not some real, evidence-based options for change – there are.

The way forward is to provide fundamentally customized supports that enable – rather than coerce – increased labour market participation.

But there are no “quick fixes” that get us there.


The views expressed above are that of the author, Nathan Hauch. They are not necessarily the views of his employer.

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