Christina Anderson often has to take time off work. Her spina bifida means she requires regular CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays, and frequent appointments with specialists. And those screenings can lead to even more time out of the office: the benign tumour that developed in one of her salivary glands was likely caused by radiation.
“I’m working 40 hours a week, and I am exhausted. I would like to have a full-time job — I just don’t know if I can do it for the next 40 years,” she says.
Anderson is one of the thousands of Ontarians with disabilities who are active in the workforce. But finding a job with an accommodating employer and a comprehensive benefits package is a challenge — and the structure of the Ontario Disability Support Program can create more obstacles.
ODSP exists to support those who cannot work full-time through no fault of their own. Welfare programs for non-disabled adults are usually based on the idea that assistance will be temporary and that recipients will eventually rejoin the workforce — but programs for adults with disabilities can’t work on the assumption that recipients will ever get better or hold down a job.
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The program’s rates are higher than those of Ontario Works, as are the asset limits and other benefits that recipients of the program can claim. The maximum rate for a single adult is $1,169 per month — $672 of that covers basic needs, and $497 goes to shelter costs. These amounts don’t include work-related benefits, medical expenses covered by the program, or money received through the special-diet allowance or other benefits the program provides. (By contrast, Ontario Works provides only $733 in total.)
It is possible for ODSP recipients to earn money through work — at least to an extent. They’re allowed to earn $200 a month without getting their next month’s cheque clawed back, but they lose 50 cents of each dollar earned afterward.
For example, if someone earns $500 one month, they will keep $200 free and clear, leaving $300 subject to clawbacks. They will then have $150 removed from the next month’s cheque but will also receive $100 from a work-related benefit. In this way, people who work on ODSP always experience a net gain. (Results of the new Progressive Conservative government’s review of social-assistance programs are expected Thursday. The Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services said it can’t comment on upcoming changes in advance of the announcement.)
“[The clients] think that the government is out to get them or that ODSP doesn’t want them to work, when, in fact, it’s quite the opposite,” says Ryan Hooey, a former recipient of the program who has worked at Insight Advantage, an employment-services agency affiliated with it. “ODSP loves it when people are working, because they can still provide the benefits and the person is getting self-fulfilment from their job. It’s kind of a win-win-win.”
But there’s still a limit to how much someone can earn. The ministry website indicates that “if your earnings are too high, you may no longer qualify for ODSP.” (A ministry spokesperson would not confirm an exact dollar amount for the cutoff.) And, as Anderson says, “Most people on ODSP don’t necessarily want to be on ODSP. They want to be contributing members of society.” However, finding a way to make a better living and work as much as they’re able can be a difficult proposition.
The job hunt itself often presents barriers. “When you hear people talking about jobs they had, especially growing up, it was like working at a fast-food place or working at a store or something, and that’s how they gained experience and some skill,” says Delaney Dunlop, who uses a power wheelchair so could not get an entry-level job like the ones she describes. According to Dunlop, the equipment she needs can create physical barriers in the workplace itself: “You can get through the door, but you wouldn’t be able to get behind the cash register.
After many years of receiving ODSP while still a student, Dunlop is now employed full-time with the federal government, doing application design for Statistics Canada. She found her position through a co-op term she had while taking a diploma in multimedia design, which she completed after doing a four-year degree.
“I was very lucky to have a co-op opportunity. I don’t think I would have found a job like this otherwise,” says Dunlop, adding that a lot of people with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to gain similar experience.
Hooey notes that ODSP has resources in place to support job seekers. “ODSP has some really good things going on, and I think people just really don’t understand what they are,” he says. For example, employment-services agencies such as the one Hooey worked at help clients apply for jobs and offer services including resumé-writing assistance and job coaching. ODSP also offers a startup benefit, which clients can apply for once a year. The $500 grant covers expenses associated with starting a new job, such as work-appropriate clothing, safety equipment, and technology.
Such services, though, can be tricky to navigate. “I like the fact that they have an employment-support program,” Anderson says. “But I wish that it was more structured and less complicated.” To find the agency, she had to sit down with her caseworker and look through a large file folder. She then had to call different agencies until she found a fit.
“Someone might not feel comfortable cold-calling all these different agencies,” she says. “It’s not the easiest process to go through, but neither is getting onto ODSP.”
And while Anderson found her first job through such a service, she says it wasn’t helpful when it came to subsequent positions — it didn’t specialize in the kind of career-track jobs she was interested in. So she decided to look for jobs on her own. Ultimately, she got various casual contracts with the federal government, including her current one with Health Canada, which is temporary but offers full-time hours..
If one does manage to find a job, it can then be a struggle to make ends meet and balance health and work requirements while remaining eligible for assistance. As well as providing money to live on, the program offers what is often the only drug, dental, and equipment coverage people with disabilities have access to, and many employers will not cover those costs even if if they do supply benefits.
Taylor Hyatt works as a policy analyst for Not Dead Yet, a non-profit organization that advocates against medically assisted death and for disability rights. She says she appreciates many things about this job — for instance, that it gives her the flexibility to work from home. But she has found that what she makes at her current job with a non-profit doesn’t cover her health-related expenses. For her, losing the benefits she’d previously received through ODSP isn’t an option.
That’s not a choice Dunlop wants to make: “I have worked hard to be a contributing member of society. I can’t imagine myself sitting at home. That’s just not who I am.”
Sarah Trick is an Ottawa-based journalist who has written for The Walrus and Global News.