By Dianne Wintermute, Staff Lawyer
On November 22, 2018, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services announced that social assistance in Ontario would be reformed. One of the changes is to redefine disability under the current Ontario Disability Support Program Act (ODSPA), the law which governs income support benefits that Ontario provides to eligible persons with disabilities. The Minister said that the new definition would be more like the one used in federal government benefit programs.
Generally, there is no one definition of disability that applies provincially or federally. Each benefit program has its own eligibility criteria. This means that you might qualify for one program but not another. That is why the definition of disability is so important.
Currently, in order to qualify for ODSP benefits, a person must show that they have a substantial physical or mental impairment that is continuous or recurrent and expected to last one year or more; that results in a substantial restriction in one or more activities of daily living; and is verified by a prescribed health care provider.
The ODSP definition has been applied in a broad and flexible manner. Courts and Tribunals have recognized that people with disabilities face barriers to work or community involvement or participating in activities of daily living. ODSP benefits include money for shelter and basic needs and provide employment supports. There are other benefits, like medical transportation, drug coverage, vision and some dental care, and help with the purchase of assistive devices. People who receive ODSP can also receive financial gifts and use additional money to pay for disability-related items and/or expenses. ODSP is a social assistance program and is therefore considered to be a “program of last resort”, which means that you own few assets and have little or no income.
Federally, Canada does not have one single definition of disability. The closest program to ODSP is likely the Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-D) benefit program. In order to qualify for benefits under CPP-D, a disability must be both “severe and “prolonged, and it must prevent you from being able to work at any job on a regular basis. Severe means that you have a mental or physical disability that regularly stops you from doing any type of substantially gainful work. Prolonged means that your disability is long-term and of indefinite duration or is likely to result in death. In addition, you must have contributed to the Canada Pension Plan through insurable earnings from employment to be able to take advantage of the program. The amount you are entitled to under this plan depends on how much and how long you have contributed to the program. CPP-D does not take into account financial need.
ARCH is concerned that a more narrow definition of disability for ODSP will exclude many persons with disabilities and force them to live on Ontario Works (OW). At present, a single person on ODSP receives $1,169.00 per month. OW provides significantly less income support only $733.00 per month. OW does not provide benefits for disability related supports and services that are so important to the health, well-being, and inclusion of persons with disabilities. OW’s emphasis is on getting more people back into the workforce to earn money and not rely on social assistance. This emphasis on employment might not take into account restrictions that people with disabilities have. This is particularly the case with people who experience chronic or episodic disabilities or those who can work some time but not full time. Very few employers have flexible work schedules to accommodate persons with disabilities. The government is changing social assistance rules but will they also encourage employers to consider different ways that people can participate in work?
There are many details about changes to ODSP or OW programs that the Government of Ontario has not yet released. We do not know what the definition for ODSP will be; we do not know what benefits, and in particular, what disability or health related benefits, will be available; we do not know what kind of employment supports will be put in place. Persons with disabilities are left with a lot of questions and no real answers.
On April 5, 2019, ARCH, along with the Income Security Advocacy Centre, the ODSP Action Coalition and Voices from the Street, among others, participated in an Ontario Government consultation on proposed changes to defining disability. Issues of severity and duration of disability were discussed. ARCH encouraged the government to take an individualized approach to disability, one that will reflect each person’s lived experience and the context in which they experience disability. We also reminded the government of their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which provides that persons with disabilities have a right to an adequate standard of living and social protection. We were told that a summary of the government’s consultations will be made available. We will report back to our communities once we receive it.