Disabled in Ontario increasingly forced onto welfare

Disabled in Ontario increasingly forced onto welfare

 RENE JOHNSTON / TORONTO STAR Order this photo Judy Cong's cancer forced her onto ODSP because she didn't have benefits at work.

Judy Cong’s cancer forced her onto ODSP because she didn’t have benefits at work.

Laurie Monsebraaten

Dec 13 2013

From its origins in the 1960s as the disability benefit of last resort, the Ontario Disability Support Program has become the only financial assistance available for a growing number of Ontarians, says a new report on the “welfareization” of incomes for the disabled.

Due to the rise of part-time, contract and other forms of non-standard work, more and more Ontarians who become sick, injured or disabled no longer qualify for Employment Insurance sickness benefits, workers’ compensation or workplace disability benefits, says the Metcalf Foundation report being released Friday.

Of almost 740,000 Ontarians who rely on disability benefits to survive, up to 42 per cent receive Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) cheques, making it the largest of eight disability income programs available in the province, says social policy expert John Stapleton, the report’s author.

The disability program’s strict limits on personal assets, outside income and other support, condemns recipients to poverty and the stigma that surrounds social assistance, the report notes. A single person on ODSP is eligible to receive a maximum of just $1,086 per month.

“It was never the intent that a so-called last resort program like social assistance would be the largest component of our disability income system,” Stapleton says.

“ODSP should be the residual program that is there when you fall through the cracks, and now it’s the biggest single program by far.” he says.

Any provincial changes to ODSP — or attempt to design a new disability income program — must take this larger context into account, the report warns.

Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-Disability) and Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits each cover only about 20 per cent of claimants, Stapleton says.

Although no one tracks recipients of employer disability benefits, Stapleton estimates they cover just 15 per cent of all claimants. Federal EI sickness and veterans’ benefits, along with the relatively new Registered Disability Savings Plan, support very few disabled Ontarians, each representing less than 2 per cent of claimants, he adds. The federal Disability Tax Credit doesn’t kick in unless a person has taxable income.

Former Toronto factory worker Judy Cong, 45, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2002, shortly after she came to Canada from China.

But because her job had no disability benefits, she was forced to rely on EI sickness benefits, which ran out after 15 weeks.

Fortunately, she was able to qualify for ODSP, which also covered the cost of her drugs and other medical expenses after surgery in 2003, she said in an interview. The program also supported her husband, who had to quit his job for several months to look after.

Cong returned to work briefly in 2006, after retraining to become a baker. But she was too weak to remain on the job. Her cancer returned in 2010 and she had surgery again last summer.

Cong’s monthly ODSP cheque has shrunk to less than $200 a month due to her husband’s rising income. But it still covers her ongoing medical expenses.

“I really don’t know how I we would have managed without ODSP,” said the mother of a 19-year-old son studying business at York University

Costs of all disability income programs are increasing because of our aging population and increased awareness of mental illness and post-traumatic distress disorder, the report notes. But none of the programs has grown as fast as ODSP, which saw provincial spending jump by almost 45 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

Last year’s provincial social assistance review commission, headed by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, suggested savings could be found by tightening ODSP and eventually merging it with Ontario Works, the province’s less-generous welfare program for the non-disabled.

Stapleton says his analysis shows the commission’s view of ODSP is flawed.

“More research is needed to understand the causes and consequences of the welfareization of disability,” Stapleton concludes in his report. “In turn, this will enable policy-makers to provide more effective, robust and humane support to Ontarians and Canadians with disabilities.”

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott