TORONTO — Advocates are calling on the Ontario government to reconsider its plan to narrow eligibility requirements for provincial disability payments and potentially cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the social services ministry in future years.
“There’s been a number of indications from this government that following pressure, they’re willing to reconsider certain decisions,” Nick Churchman, a staff lawyer with Community Legal Services of Ottawa, told HuffPost Canada.
“We are encouraging social assistance recipients and their supporters to have these conversations with their local MPP about why these cuts and why changing what a disability means, under ODSP, would be so bad.”
Some cuts reversed in latest update
The 2019 Ontario budget said it would cut $1 billion from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services by 2021/22, starting with a cut of $300 million this year.
But after backtracking on a number of controversial cuts, the government’s latest economic update said it had increased spending in the area $637 million over what it had previously planned to spend in 2019. That number includes $310 million to reverse some changes to the Transition Child Benefit, child welfare agencies and social assistance, and another $279 million to nearly double the budget for the Ontario Autism Program after its overhaul caused outrage.
So instead of being down $300 million this year, the government is actually investing more in the ministry. It’s unclear whether the cuts outlined for future years are going ahead.
The most recent financial update said the government is “deferring changes in social assistance while transformation is underway.”
Watch: Finance minister delivers Ontario fiscal update. Story continues after video.
But one cut that’s still on the table is the planned change to eligibility requirements for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
Churchman said the change, which would align Ontario’s definition with the federal government’s view that a disability must be “severe and prolonged,” would disqualify many people served by his legal clinic.
His organization and other groups like food banks, housing cooperatives, as well as city councillors and Opposition MPPs, sent a letter asking Minister Todd Smith to revisit the idea.
“Changing the ODSP disability definition as your government has proposed will plunge many persons with disabilities into further poverty,” the letter said.
“If enacted, those who do not qualify medically for ODSP will have to rely on Ontario Works. A single person on OW receives a meagre maximum benefit of $733 per month. Meanwhile, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa is $1,310.3. Most social assistance recipients in Ottawa do not live in social housing, as the wait time can exceed 10 years, and over 12,000 households are on the wait-list.”
“Changing the ODSP disability definition ... will plunge many persons with disabilities into further poverty.”
No one from the minister’s office has responded to the letter, Churchman told HuffPost.
A spokesperson for Smith said that a response is on its way.
“Our government is focused on delivering on our key commitments to the people of Ontario,” Christine Wood told HuffPost by email.
She would not say whether the government is reconsidering its change to the definition of disability, or when it plans to introduce legislation to do so.
“We are constantly reviewing government programs, with a focus on improved delivery and better outcomes for all,” Wood said. “We are focusing on the broader plan to improve social assistance and employment programs by transforming a broken, costly and patchwork system, into simpler, more effective supports so that everyone can contribute to the success of our province.”
Churchman said the change would mean fewer people receive ODSP.
“We envision that even more applicants will be denied,” he said, “particularly those with recurrent or episodic disabilities, like addiction, mental health problems, [multiple sclerosis], chronic pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue, and certain forms of cancer that can be treated within a couple years.”
“Everything is a challenge.”
Bobbi Assoun, a 48-year-old Ottawa resident who has MS, said it was already too hard to qualify for ODSP. She was initially told she wasn’t “disabled enough,” she told HuffPost. It wasn’t until she lost some use of her right leg that she was able to qualify.
“Everything is a challenge,” on ODSP, she said.
Assoun said she’s not sure how she would have survived if she had never received ODSP. Even on the program, she spent a year homeless, living in shelters and hotels, because she couldn’t find affordable housing.
“Honestly, I think it was the hardest thing I ever went through in my entire life,” she said.
“It was only a year and it was only in a hotel. But it was just … ” she trailed off. “I’m still taking anxiety medication over that year that I was homeless.”
One mental health organization also said it expects that the new definition of disability would preclude many of its clients who live with mental illnesses.
‘ODSP is working’
Living on Ontario Works instead of ODSP has the potential to worsen people’s mental illnesses, said the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario branch, Camille Quenneville.
“ODSP is working and it is keeping many people with mental illness in a much healthier state, in its current form, than they would be otherwise,” she said.
Her organization has had many “very respectful” conversations with this government, which she says has shown “exemplary” dedication to investing in mental health.
“We don’t go out of our way to take issue. If anything, it’s quite the opposite,” Quenneville said.
“The reason we raised the ODSP issue — and truthfully, it’s really quite rare for us to be publicly taking issue — is because we do see that as having a critically negative impact on clients. It is incumbent on us to point that out.”