Taking action to improve disability benefits in Ontario

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Image: Used with permission of the ODSP Action Coalition.

Kyle Vose works for a social service agency in Toronto and is the agency co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition. In earlier years, he was also an ODSP (or Ontario Disability Support Program) recipient and served as the recipient co-chair of the coalition. And Andrea Hatala is its current recipient co-chair. Scott Neigh interviews them about ODSP, the challenges faced by recipients, and the activities of the ODSP Action Coalition.

In the second half of the 1990s, a Conservative government in Ontario reorganized the province's social assistance system into two main programs -- Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for people the system decided were disabled, and Ontario Works (OW) for people that it decided were not. They also made major cuts, including to some benefit rates, and instituted sweeping changes in how the system operated that made it harsher, more punitive and harder to access.

In the years after this, community legal clinics and other front-line social service agencies, not surprisingly, noticed immense problems. Specifically with respect to ODSP, this included widespread unfair denial of applications to the program and major concerns with the rules and the treatment to which recipients were subjected. In response, the organizations began working together more deliberately to document the problems and advocate for change. In 2002, under the banner of the ODSP Action Coalition, they held 16 community forums in different parts of the province to develop a more complete picture and some recommendations for change.

Over the years, the coalition grew and shifted. Perhaps most significantly, recipients of ODSP wanted to get involved. In 2009, the terms of reference of the coalition were changed to ensure that it would always have two co-chairs, one of whom must be a recipient, and that recipients comprise at least 50 per cent of its steering committee.

The coalition engages in a number of different kinds of action. This includes documenting the problems with the system that recipients face. It sometimes includes protest, and various froms of lobbying and advocacy. Often, it involves work with conventional and social media. During the Liberal provincial government of Kathleen Wynne, it involved being regularly invited to consult with officials, though that open door has largely been shut since the election of Doug Ford's Conservatives. When possible, they continue to organize various kinds of conferences and forums in different parts of the province. And they offer a number of workshops to ODSP recipients around knowing their rights, navigating the system, and advocacy.

Today's participants also talk about some of the many issues that the coalition has tackled over the years, from unfair rules, to unfair changes in rules, to features of the system that enact -- in the words of one of today's participants and the title of a report published many years ago -- "denial by design."

When the Ford government took power, it proposed a range of changes to ODSP that were of grave concern to the coalition. This included a shift in how the system would deal with recipients earning money, as well as the cancellation of a number of small improvements that the prior government had scheduled to go into effect. Of greatest concern was a proposal to change how the program defines disability, making it drastically more restrictive and seriously limiting eligibility for ODSP. The ensuing uproar and vigorous advocacy, including by the coalition, resulted in many of these proposals being withdrawn for the time being, most notably the redefinition of disability.

In the context of COVID-19, they have been working to ensure that those ODSP recipients who qualify for the federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (or CERB) do not have it clawed back from their ODSP income. (Since this interview was done, the Ontario government announced they would claw it back at the amounts they do for employment income.)

And of course a fundamental issue from the very start has been the inadequacy of ODSP rates. A single person on ODSP currently receives $1,169 per month. While this is higher than OW, a 2016 report found that at that point, a single person on ODSP was 33 per cent below the poverty line, and things have likely worsened since then. So a high priority in the work of the coalition every step of the way has been fighting to have the rates increased to allow people with disabilities to live with dignity.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the ODSP Action Coalition.

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