Ontario to change definition of disability as part of social assistance reforms

People receiving disability support from the Ontario government will be able to keep more of the money they earn as part of the province's overhaul of social assistance, but critics say it will be harder to qualify for help. Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod laid out a broad vision for social assistance under the Progressive Conservatives on Thursday, promising to cut red tape and encourage people to get back in the job market with a series of changes scheduled to take place over the next 18 months.

"The sad truth is that social assistance in Ontario is simply not working for the people it is intended to support. It traps people in a cycle of dependency and far too often it robs them of the dignity and independence of a job. We can do better," MacLeod said. "We want to make sure that we do this gradually so we do not disrupt people in need, we're talking about a million people."

The government's changes include aligning the province's definition of disability with that of the federal government, a move MacLeod said aimed to provide greater clarity. Ottawa does not have a single definition for what constitutes a disability but opposition legislators said the threshold to qualify for disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan is higher than it is for the Ontario Disability Support Program.

MacLeod said those currently receiving disability supports from the province will be grandfathered in but would not say whether fewer would be able to qualify in the future. The changes announced Thursday will, however, allow people on disability support who are able to work to keep more of their earnings.

Sarah Jama, an organizer with the Hamilton-based Disability Justice Network of Ontario, said she is both "happy" and "worried" after Thursday's announcement. People receiving ODSP or OW who are working will be able to keep more of the money they earn in their pocket, which is a "good thing," she said. "It will help people move themselves out of poverty over time," Jama said.

Laura Cattari, who was chair of the social assistance reform work group of Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said some features of the overhaul were among the recommendations her group made in its road map for change. She mentioned the work incentives and the retention of more earnings without penalty. "But it is definitely concerning that they are changing the definition of disabilities," said Cattari. "The definition can be especially difficult for those with episodic disability."

Jama is also concerned by the province's decision to align its definition of people with disabilities with the federal government's. Jama called the federal definition "pretty broad" and wondered how the change might lessen the number of people able to access ODSP. "Where I get worried is, that really misses out on people with episodic disabilities or people with invisible disabilities or mental health concerns that are on ODSP or need ODSP," she said. "I feel like it will be a lot harder to access."

As for the government working more closely with municipalities to develop a plan to phase in changes and give them flexibility to meet local needs, Jama said she worries about the impact this could have on already-overloaded caseworkers as well as how it might "leave a lot of people out of the system." "It leaves a lot of room for biases," Jama said. "Who gets to decide who fits that definition of disability?" "It turns into the caseworker making those decisions versus you being able to be referred in a different way," she added.

Conservative MPP Donna Skelly (Flamborough-Glanbrook) said the changes will profoundly improve work opportunity for those now on social assistance. "We heard from employers that they can't find skilled workers. By giving them skills and linking them to employers, it will help them find good work." She added that the changes also put more responsibility and control in the hands of municipalities, which is good for a city like Hamilton, with much experience with those on social assistance. "The people in the municipalities who are front line workers helping to find work for people will be able to navigate (clients) through the system, not just fill out paper work."

The allowance for more earnings without having support reduced is another benefit of the changes and an improvement, she said, over the previous Liberal government's formula. The province said people on ODSP will be able to earn $6,000 a year without having their support reduced, rather than the current $200 a month. It also says there will be a 25 per cent exemption on earnings beyond $6,000. Those receiving support through the Ontario Works program will also see their threshold raised, but less than they were promised under the previous Liberal government. They will be able to take home $300 a month before seeing a drop in assistance, compared with the current $200. They would also have a 25 per cent exemption on any further earnings. The Liberals had pledged to raise the monthly threshold to $400, with a 50 per cent exemption on any additional earnings.

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), an organization of low- and moderate-income families, said in a news release that the minister's announcement today has left many low-income Ontarians in fear. "Although the Liberals' plan for a $6,000 annual exemption for people working while receiving ODSP has been maintained, the clawback rate has been increased to 75 per cent. People with disabilities who earn over $6,000 from employment will only receive 25 cents for every dollar they earn. We are also disappointed that the exemption has been cut from $400/month for OW recipients, to $300/month. This cut will further entrench poverty in our communities. "Other red flags include increasingly digitized services, which make it more difficult for low-income people and people with disabilities who do not have internet access to apply for benefits, and individual action plans, where recipients will likely be forced to track every move or risk having benefits stopped."

When asked how much the government's revamped social assistance system will cost, MacLeod declined to answer, saying she rejected the question. Critics accused the government of passing off social assistance cuts as compassionate reforms. "For people in Ontario living with a disability or serious illness, this change is going to make them more destitute, and more desperate,"

NDP social services critic Lisa Gretzky said in a statement." This is a callous way to deliver a cut on the backs of the most vulnerable people in Ontario. It's taking Ontario's social services from bad to worse." Liberal legislator Marie-France Lalonde said she had "strong concerns" about the government's plan to alter the definition of disability. "Our interpretation is the CPP definition on disability and the threshold is way higher to have access," she said.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said redefining disability will add more barriers when so many people are already excluded from the support they need. "I think they're looking at trying to create more restrictions for people to be on ODSP because it's a more generous monthly benefit," he said of the government. Thursday's announcement got a mixed response from Community Living Ontario, a nonprofit that works with people with intellectual disabilities.

Switching to an annual income threshold and raising the limit is helpful for those on disability who are able to work, said Chris Beesley, the organization's CEO. "(But) for a lot of people who have had trouble getting work that would allow them to earn more than $6,000 or have trouble being able to work, this really does nothing," he said. Beesley said he would have liked to see an increase in disability benefits that keeps up with the rate of inflation as well as measures such as increasing the limit on assets owned by people receiving ODSP.

The government announced this summer it would carry out a massive redesign of its social assistance system, saying the existing one was expensive and inefficient. At the same time, the province moved to cancel a basic income pilot project, which provided payments to 4,000 low-income earners in cities such as Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. MacLeod called that program, launched by the Liberals in 2017 and set to run for three years, a "disincentive to get people back to work." Anti-poverty advocates denounced the cancellation, with one group pledging to defend against what it called Premier Doug Ford's "war on the poor." Program participants will now receive their final payments next March. The Tories also said they were cutting a planned three per cent increase in social assistance to 1.5 per cent.


Article by Natalie Paddon for The Hamilton Spectator