People with disabilities and program staff to MPPs:
Lift people with disabilities out of poverty
People with disabilities and the front line staff who work with them joined forces on April 10 to tell MPPs: improve disability benefits, but not in the ways recommended by a provincial commission.
Their message attracted a lot of influential politicians. Among the 30 MPPs to attend the event at Queen"s Park were five cabinet ministers, the chief government whip, House Leader and Speaker.
More than 75 people packed a committee room to give MPPs a deeply personal perspective on the challenges of living with a disability and trying to make ends meet on an income that is 30 per cent below the poverty line.
OPSEU and the ODSP Action Coalition organized the event to draw attention to possible social assistance changes that will hurt people with disabilities.
“The main reason we’re here today is to tell the politicians we want everyone lifted out of poverty,” said President Warren (Smokey) Thomas in a short speech to MPPs, people with disabilities and ODSP staff.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath introduced President Thomas, First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, Central Employees Committee Chair Roxanne Barnes, and ODSP Action Coalition Chair Kyle Vose to MPPs in the Legislature prior to the information session.
The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) provides a tiny income, prescription drug coverage and employment supports to people with disabilities who qualify. ODSP gives assistance to 415,000 Ontarians through 44 field offices. OPSEU represents 1,800 staff at ODSP province-wide.
Coalition members, ODSP staff and OPSEU leaders talked to MPPs about the daily struggles of people with disabilities to find meaningful work, secure affordable housing, eat healthy food, participate in the community, and travel to medical appointments.
MPPs were told that eliminating the Special Diet Allowance, changing the rules about the amount of earnings people can keep from working, and combining ODSP with the social assistance program Ontario Works will cut the incomes of people with disabilities. These are all recommendations of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance. The Wynne government is studying the commission’s final report for possible implementation.
OPSEU Executive Board Members Sandi Blancher, Mary Cory, Sarah Labelle, Gord Longhi and Carl Thibodeau provided their support to the lobby.
Coalition members, all people with lived experience on ODSP, and ODSP staff met for an hour before MPPs arrived. Leaders from the coalition and the union talked about the importance of uniting to oppose the harmful recommendations of the commission.
The two groups then came together for a ‘sharing circle’. People talked about their experiences to nods of agreement from others in the room.
Coalition member Louise Bark of Kingston listed the hourly wages of some jobs in her area, and itemized her expenses, to illustrate the fact that the income people receive from ODSP doesn’t meet costs. She pointed out she was one of the lucky ones because her rent is geared to her income. Theresa Somerton of Belleville talked about the impact of the provincial drug program’s decision to stop paying for some of her medications and how this has made it difficult for her to seek medical attention for her disability.
Parent Sylvia Holinaty travelled to Queens’ Park from Hamilton with a group of Special Olympics athletes, including her son. Ms Holinaty talked about the challenges of stretching her limited budget to pay $30 to make sure her son had healthy food for the journey.
ODSP staff, representing two-thirds of ODSP offices in the province, echoed the concerns of people with disabilities that income support is totally inadequate. They pointed out that the maximum amount the government provides for housing, $479 for a single adult on ODSP, leaves people with disabilities no choice but to live in sub-standard housing.
Staff talked about the fallout from the government’s decision to eliminate the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit. This program provided emergency housing grants to people on social assistance. The government replaced CSUMB with a small amount of funds for municipalities to provide, at their discretion, to all low-income people. ODSP staff said the government had eliminated an important “tool from their tool box” in terms of helping people cover housing expenses and they said people are being turned down for assistance from their municipality.
ODSP staff said the problem of unequal access of benefits will only grow more acute if the government downloads ODSP to municipalities, as recommended by the provincial commission on social assistance.
OPSEU’s leadership team for the Ministry of Community and Social Services, called the Ministry Employee Relations Committee or MERC, were the driving force behind the lobby. They are Chair Roxanne Barnes, Vice-chair Pam Smith, and members Cindy Kraakman, Dylan Lineger and Stuart J. McInnes.