Reducing Poverty by Improving the Ontario Disability Support Program

Introduction and Summary

The ODSP Action Coalition was formed in 2002 and is made up of community activists, community clinic caseworkers, and agency staff. We undertake activities designed to raise awareness of issues affecting persons in receipt of Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits. The ODSP Action Coalition is leading the campaign to document and publicize problems with ODSP and engages in advocacy to encourage solutions to these problems.

We are pleased to submit this report for the review of the government’s Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction, as we believe that implementation of the recommendations herein would make significant progress toward reducing the poverty of those currently living on ODSP, as well as the many who qualify but, for a variety of reasons, cannot access ODSP benefits.

Since the ODSP was created in 1998, numerous surveys, reports, and investigations have chronicled a variety of barriers faced by people trying to access and/or maintain financial benefits. Most of these barriers are systemic – they are inherent in the ODSP program, whether by design or by practice, and prevent the program from adequately serving the needs of the people who find themselves forced to rely on it. The barriers in ODSP not only impoverish people by preventing them from accessing necessary supports, they also create a sense of despair at ever being able to live life to the fullest.

In the spirit of poverty reduction, the Access Committee of the ODSP Action Coalition has taken the initiative to review many of these reports, with an eye to compiling a list of common barriers and recommendations for change. We hope that these recommendations can be incorporated into the government’s upcoming Poverty Reduction Strategy, and that positive changes can be made to ODSP so that it becomes a program that actively supports people with disabilities to get out of poverty.

Seventeen reports written by service providers, policy analysts, client groups, and academics between 2001 and 2007 were reviewed, from which 261 recommendations were taken. Many of the same problems appeared throughout these reports and many similar recommendations for change were made. The names of these reports, their bibliographic details, and their scope of enquiry are attached in Appendix I.

We have grouped our findings into 48 systemic barriers, affecting six areas of concentration which correspond to specific processes in the ODSP system: the Application Process, Disability Determination, Financial Eligibility and Maintenance of Benefits, Benefit Rates, Service Delivery, and Internal Review and Appeals.

The 48 barriers to benefits are listed in the Table of Contents for easy reference. Throughout this report, each of the barriers is accompanied by a brief summary of the issues involved and followed by specific recommendations for change, arranged in chronological order. Notes have been made where the recommended changes have been implemented, in whole or in part.

It should be noted that this report was explicitly not intended to review and enumerate barriers to those benefits and supports that are intended to help people enter or re-enter the labour market. So, for example, while issues surrounding earnings exemptions are very important to the income levels of people receiving social assistance, they were not included here. This decision was taken because other groups and individuals are addressing employment-related issues; nevertheless, it was felt that identifying and advocating around the barriers identified in this report are important when considering ways in which to approach ODSP reform.

The picture that this report paints is of a system riddled with barriers – a system that remains broken, despite the many recommendations and complaints made over the years. Problems with the provision of information and the complexity of processes or forms prevent many people from entering the program at the outset. Adjudication processes that are seen as neither transparent nor fair result in significant delays and reduced benefits for many who are struggling. Communications that are neither complete nor compassionate degrade, frustrate, and humiliate people whose situations require support and assistance. And the general culture of disentitlement that pervades the entire social assistance system leaves many struggling more to maintain their benefits than to live productive and fulfilling lives.

We strongly believe that a system that has been documented to be broken needs to be fixed. This government’s commitment to poverty reduction gives us hope to believe that, finally, ODSP can become the income security system that it was intended to be – one that truly supports people with disabilities and gives them the means to get out of poverty, rather than continuing to condemn them to a life sentence of living in poverty and despair.

Read the entire Word document at the ODSP Action Coalition’s website