The government of Ontario and other provinces across Canada recognize that many people with disabilities are unable to work and need income support in order to cover their living and medical expenses. In Ontario it’s called the Ontario Disability Support Progam (ODSP) and it provides a maximum amount of $900 a month, along with a monthly dental and drug voucher. On its face it sounds excellent, and it does really help those with no alternative. But needing your every need provided for is only one extreme on the entire ability spectrum.
Way back in the day, I wrote a ThisAbility entry called Walking Between Worlds that this same phenomenon affects many people with disabilities in a major way when it comes to their potential employability and their need for income support. Most people are capable enough to have a job, but disabled enough to need income support because if you can, have, or do work, your disability, in many cases, still restricts your options. I couldn’t just take a job in construction or as a server in a restaurant, and I always have to be mindful of how far my place of employment is from my home. I have to make sure I can either drive my scooter there or that public transportation is nearby. I also have to make sure I can actually get into the building and that there are only a few stairs. These factors greatly restrict where I can work compared to the able-bodied population, so I do qualify for income support. However, like most government programs, there’s a lot of fine print you don’t see from the outside looking in. In fact, ODSP doesn’t really give you a hand up under my circumstances. It does a lot more to keep you down and dependent.
ODSP takes full advantage of the phrase “some restrictions apply”. Just because you have a disability and qualify for the program doesn’t mean you automatically receive the stipend every month. In order to get the maximum amount, all of your assets, bank accounts, and investments can’t exceed $7,000. You can work, and ODSP will even provide you with a wardrobe and transportation budget, but you must disclose every dollar you make so that every month they can deduct 50 cents of every dollar you earn from the ODSP allowance. The real salt on the wound is that as long as you still need the income the government provides, you can never get ahead and save money. As soon as your total asset limit exceeds $7,000, you must notify them and they stop sending cheques. If you forget to report that your assets have topped $7,000, you must pay back every last dollar over that amount. Plus, if you happen to feel that the government should not be privy to all the ins and outs of your finances and knowingly omit your asset total and they happen to find out, they could put you away for fraud.
Unfortunately, life is not an either/or scenario. For many with disabilities, it’s not the case that you can work and you don’t need the cheque, or you need the cheque and can’t work at all. Most people aspire to be free and clear of the cheque one day, but are still on the way. The way the system works though, you stay dependent while the government gives with one hand and takes with the other. How can you ever overcome the cheque and move toward fully employed financial independence if you’re always hitting the $7,000 ceiling? How can a government pretend to be progressive and encourage people with disabilities to work, when their actions say, “Oh yeah, you can work, but don’t work too much. Don’t try to build a future for yourself at all. If you need a house, please apply for subsidized housing, and do not attempt to pay for it free and clear.”
Of course, it’s already a given that if you only get income support, you’ll need subsidized housing. If you don’t, your entire monthly amount of $900 would be needed just for the rent, and forget ever owning your own house as long as you still are trapped in the noose of ODSP. They may be providing a small amount for your work wardrobe and transportation, but if the job you’re applying for isn’t paying a rate significantly above the maximum amount of the cheque, you might as well stay home and not even bother, because 50 cents off of every dollar will be clawed back. This system actually discourages you from working. Of course, our capitalist system is hierarchical, so you need the lesser paying jobs in order to get the higher paying jobs that give you any hope of overcoming the cheque. Instead of concentrating on your financial future, you spend all your time calculating and tabulating your finances so that you don’t go over $7,000, or get nailed for fraud. All this work so that you can keep getting the help you need. I ask, what kind of hypocritical B.S. is that? This is the very antithesis of empowerment and helping people rise above their circumstances. It’s like they’re waiting for you to slip up and baiting you to make a mistake. Some people are so outraged that they create hidden bank accounts that they never reveal to the government brass as a form of protest against this cycle of dependence. It’s their middle finger to the establishment and if they’re brave enough to attempt to get away with it, I say, “Wave it proud.”
However, ODSP income support is only the symptom in a greater societal mentality. People are under the mistaken impression that disability comes from a diagnosis. They think that disability is the space between those with a normal physical or mental capacity, and those who don’t have those functions at a normal capacity. However, real disability exists in the wide breadth between a society’s current accessibility, and what it would take for them to be fully accessible.
Think about it. If I could get in to every building the able-bodied population can, and every opportunity open to a regular able-bodied citizen was one I could take advantage of, then suddenly, whatever differences my diagnosis created from birth are nullified. My disability suddenly becomes a non-issue and has no bearing on my life’s success or failure.
Instead, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is still three to four times higher than it is in the able-bodied world, and we support those who can’t work by just giving them money. Why set up a system like income support, where you are continually giving a man a fish, but within that system you’re putting up barriers and restrictions that prevent you from teaching that man to fish for himself?
The only explanation is that someone wants to maintain the disability population. They are happy placating and plying us with $900 cheques, and have no real desire to see us move past our diagnosis and become fully self-sufficent, contributing members of society. The income support system was built with the intention of aiding us toward equality, but instead it just emphasizes how different we really are — and if nothing happens, how different we will stay.
Aaron is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Financial Post Business, Investment Executive Newspaper, and TV Week Magazine, along with Askmen.com. He is a regular contributor to Abilities Magazine and is currently plotting a weekly web comic called GIMP, with artist Jon Duguay, about a handicap school bus driver who wakes up after a crash to find he’s the last able-bodied person on earth — and he’s being hunted.