In the beginning, Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) was meant to bring people with disabilities into society. That was the goal: inclusion.
Somewhere along the way, ODSP became a means to push people with disabilities into society by getting them off ODSP (and the government financial assistance and/or humanitarian subsidies). That become the goal: save money.
The most glaring sign of the change is that the minister of accessibility is not in charge of ODSP. That task is for the minister of community services. Though accessibility and inclusion should be the goal of ODSP. Instead it’s become two separate issues. And ODSP gets lumped into Ontario Works (OW), even though people with disabilities are vastly different than fully-able-bodied individuals on OW. There are similarities of course, as is the case with any group of human beings, but the conditions and circumstances and needs are very different.
Yet, even in news articles, ODSP is often mentioned with OW, as if they are inevitably linked and should be treated as such.
The mother dealing with raising two kids on her own after the father was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver, is different than the father who has a wife and two kids, and is dealing with a disability because he was injured in a hit-and-run by a drunk driver.
Both are similar but different.
As much as people want changes to ODSP and OW, the two must be treated and approached separately. They are two unique entities.
ODSP must return to its roots. It must return to being a part of the vehicle for inclusion by helping people with disabilities be a part of society with respect and dignity. It should be all under one ministry: Accessibility and Inclusion.
Its mandate would be to provide supports to assist people with disabilities to be fully accepted into society. Supports would have to include covering expenses for any equipment required to facilitate this, such as vehicles outfitted with lifts and driving gear, access to food needed to meet their dietary needs, technology to better manage conditions, wheelchairs to guarantee better mobility. This should also extend to educational supports so schools, colleges and universities have specific funding to accommodate needs and, more importantly, encourage people with disabilities to apply and be able to fully interact with the rest of the student body.
A monthly humanitarian subsidy should not only help cover shelter and basic needs, but take into account rising costs. Shelter rates, as they are now, do not cover rent. This means a person with disabilities will be forced to live with someone else in order to have a home. This is not independence, which is what the ministry should be striving for.
The benefit unit should be changed to only affect units making a high rate of income. Currently it covers people making below the poverty line, meaning the very system that should be keeping them above the poverty line is taking money away from people below the poverty line.
Preferably, this would be a federal program instead of provincial so people with disabilities have more stability travelling to different provinces and, in cases of a pandemic, can get federal aid as quickly as able-bodied people were. Instead, the federal aid to all was clawed back by Ontario, against federal request. The federal aid specifically for people with disabilities was incredibly slow, tied to a disability tax credit not all people with disabilities had. Provincial aid was almost non-existent in Ontario
Furthermore, information about the program should be completely accessible, easily understandable, and regularly communicated. Provincial aid during the covid outbreak for those on ODSP was announced in the media, but no information came in the monthly envelopes containing the reporting form and aid break down. Despite a media announcement, there was no clear documentation sent to ODSP recipients as to how CERB would be treated, or how to apply for extra supports. In fact, during the pandemic, case worker hours were cut in half with no office openings. Any individual without a phone would have to find one in order to try to get ahold of their caseworker. Without proper and appropriate communication, many ODSP recipients didn’t know they could apply for extra help. In addition, because of benefit units, if one person in the unit did receive CERB, not only was that used to claw back ODSP funds, it also excluded them from extra financial help. The ODSP site states that recipients must apply for all available federal aid, but then, during a pandemic, that federal aid denied them provincial aid. This should not be allowed.
The information on the government website is not clearly explained, with suggestions of double payments but without clarifying exactly how that works, how to apply and if that should apply. Recipients should be able to understand what to expect, how to expect it, and when without calling their caseworker. Changes to the program should be announced and communicated in direct documents, with clear directions, explanations, and instructions.
The ministry would also be able to push for better accessibility for businesses and municipalities, with clear and solid deadlines. There should be funds for businesses to renovate entrances to have ramps instead of steps. There should also be new guidelines for width of aisles and other important considerations for people with disabilities. The building code should be updated with clear information for accessible washrooms to match the modern motorized wheelchair. Cities and towns would have to clear sidewalks of snow better to allow people with mobility issues to still get around after a snowfall. Businesses could see that with more accessibility, there are more customers. With proper incentives and supports, businesses can grow their customer base and better their community.
The ministry could assist the education minister in creating a program for students to learn about disabilities and how to better interact, from learning basic sign language to how to guide a blind person to what to think about when trying to create an inclusive environment. We need to get away from “disability” as a “rarity” because society hasn’t made room, to realizing the reality that there are many people with disabilities and it’s not something to be uncomfortable about. One of the keys to any relationship (whether friendship or more) is communication. Being able to teach kids how to communicate with individuals who may have aphasia is important, and will be beneficial to all parties as it strengthens communication. This will all lead to a better understanding of others and a greater amount of respect for differences.
As society changes, so too would ODSP. More jobs because of better accessibility and less discrimination (because of more inclusion) would mean that aid requirements would change. It would be kept up-to-date to keep pace with society.
The question of cost will always be raised. With any budget, one must decide what one wants and how much they are willing to pay for it. Currently, everyone who pays taxes (GST & HST, etc) are taxpayers who fund the budgets. This includes recipients of ODSP, so they will also be the ones paying into the budget. With ODSP, we much decide what outcome we want (inclusion with dignity and respect, or something else) and how much we think that’s worth.