By Helen Ries
with Jihan Abbas
In August 2016, Ontario’s ombudsman released Nowhere to Turn, which outlined multiple systemic failures in provincial supports and services that lead to crisis for many adults with developmental disabilities. The stories illustrated in the report are often heart-breaking and speak to the many ways that the system leaves people with disabilities vulnerable and trapped in poverty.
My mother died suddenly in 2015, leaving me as the primary support person for my brother, an adult with Down syndrome. I soon understood that the social safety net for those with disabilities is inadequate and tenuous.
Each province has its own disability benefits program, and the rates and benefits vary. In Ontario, a single adult on disability benefits can receive a base rate of up to $1,128 a month to live, through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), as well as support for drug, dental and disability-related costs.
It sounds okay at first glance, until you look at the cost of living. In Ontario, this monthly living allowance amount doesn’t go far.
The average bachelor apartment in Ontario costs $856 a month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Statistics Canada reports that the average cost of food per month for an individual is $511. So without even considering transportation, telephone and other basic living costs, it’s clear that government support isn’t adequate for subsistence.
In larger centres like Toronto, where the cost of living is higher, the inadequacy of the support is compounded. Toronto Daily Bread Food Bank’s 2016 report noted that 33 per cent of its food bank users receive ODSP aid.
Many essentials for living can’t be attained on the funds the government provides individuals with disabilities. This means that some of their basic needs – safe and accessible housing, clothing, recreational expenses, fee-for-service related disability supports, nutritious food, transportation and accessibility related costs – go unmet.
Many individuals struggle alone with poverty. For others, like my brother, family members offer financial help so they can avoid living in poverty.
But individuals on ODSP aren’t even allowed much help from loved ones.
A person on disability benefits is only allowed to hold up to $5,000 in assets and $6,000 in gifts received each year – including gifts for basic living, such as food, a bus pass or tickets to community outings, and including gifts from family. This means that even if loved ones want to provide partial support or a helping hand, they’re not permitted by the system to give more than $6,000 (or $500 a month), without an interruption of benefits.
These restrictions on assets and gifts serve as an ironclad poverty trap that keep many persons with disabilities in a state of deep and profound uncertainty and crisis. They also impact the individual over the long term by preventing them from successfully transitioning to employment and planning for the future.
This is why over the past few months, a coalition of disability, mental health, poverty and community organizations, as well as individuals, have asked the Ontario government to make a simple regulatory change.
We ask that Ontario raise the asset cap from $5,000 to $100,000 and eliminate the gift limit of $6,000 for those receiving disability supports.
Allowing an increase on the assets and gifts a person on disability can access will make their lives safer and healthier – and allow them to dodge the bullet of profound crisis that affects so many.
There’s also a precedent for this change.
In 2015, British Columbia raised its asset level limit for those receiving disability benefits from $5,000 to $100,000 and removed the gift limit. And Alberta has had an asset limit of $100,000 for some time.
Restricting individuals with disabilities from accessing resources from their loved ones keeps them heavily dependent on government support, negatively impacts their quality of life and prevents persons with disabilities from attaining full economic citizenship.
A change in Ontario regulations would align with what’s allowed federally. Recipients of registered disability savings plans (RDSP) are permitted to access their funds – a combination of personal (family) savings and government grants – without limit, once it has vested, in order to enhance their quality of life.
It’s time Ontario caught up.
Changing the regulations around gifts and assets wouldn’t remove all the financial barriers those with disabilities face and it would not address the unmet needs of many individuals.
But it would provide opportunities for more support for a significant number of individuals while putting no additional pressure on government resources.
Helen Ries is a sibling caregiver, a community activist and an independent consultant. She is working to create better systems to support vulnerable, excluded and underrepresented populations (www.helenries.ca). Jihan Abbas is an independent scholar, consultant and activist. She holds a PhD in sociology and her work aims to build a more inclusive society (@JihanAbbas).