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Clients on disability support struggle to survive the system

section identifier imagethe front cover of a crosscurrents magazine- the main image is a vase with bold coloured flowers


By Michelle Edmunds

Spring 2004, Vol 7 No 3


Citizens of Toronto who are living on government assistance through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are looking for improvements to the system, two of them being money and dignity. Two ODSP Action Coalitions were formed in 2000 to advocate for people with mental or physical illness. One goal is to get increases to monthly ODSP incomes, which currently range between $630 and $900 per month. According to Nancy Vander Plaats, chairperson for the provincial ODSP Action Coalition, the cost of living in Toronto has gone up 22 per cent since 1993; yet ODSP recipients are still waiting for an increase.

“The former Eves government had committed to a five per cent ($46 per month) raise,” says Vander Plaats. “This is nothing. The government gave itself a 37 per cent increase in the last 10 years, but people who are suffering with a long-term illness and are unable to work get an extra $46?”

But there is a buzz in the mental health community that an ODSP increase is in the works. The new Liberal regime has promised a cost of living adjustment for ODSP recipients, which is supposed to come about annually. “We know that one out of five people in Ontario will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, and we will not leave them behind,” says Laurel Broten, Liberal MPP for Etobicoke/Lakeshore South. Barry Heaton, an advocate for people living with mental illnesses in Toronto, is concerned about the years of income that has been lost. “It’s good that these people will get more money each year. However, if we want to bring them above the poverty line, there need to be retroactive payments from the last 10 years to bring the payment rate up-to-par with the current cost of living.”

Randy Kosowich, co-chair for the Toronto ODSP Action Coalition Committee, says, “Not only is it a struggle to survive on ODSP, there also needs to be more compassion. It’s like just because we might have a serious mental illness, we don’t count, we don’t matter.” “Some ODSP workers treat people like they are scamming the mental health system. ODSP should not treat people as a general population. They should acknowledge and treat each person for who they are – individuals with self-worth and dignity.”

Zaid Mohamed, who has had schizophrenia for many years, receives ODSP and struggles to live in the current rental market. “I’ve learned that I just have to survive on less of everything,” says Mohamed. “I never buy new clothes, and I am always very careful with food. I’m on a waiting list for affordable housing, but I hear that it will probably take years before I can get in.” Simply getting a job may not be the most practical solution. Mohamed is apprehensive about seeking employment, “I would like to work. I worked for many years, but it was because of my illness that I lost jobs, and I don’t want to put myself in that situation ever again.”

Bryan Lefebvre, whose schizophrenia manifested itself while he was a student, has been on ODSP for 10 years. “I worked for 30 years, but I couldn’t work anymore; the schizophrenia controlled my life,” he says. “I don’t know what I would have become if I had never developed this illness, probably a doctor – who knows? I sure wouldn’t be living on a $600-a-month mental illness disability cheque.”

Janet Poputello, minister of community and social services, is disgusted with the mess left behind by the former Harris and Eves governments. “When I think about the former government and what they have left behind, it makes me very angry. It’s terrible, scandalous what they have done, hiding money and so on,” she says. But Poputello cannot provide a clear answer as to what changes are in the making for ODSP. “It is an eight-year-old problem. It cannot be changed overnight, and there are so many problems within the Ontario Works system,” she says. “ODSP recipients should be earning more money and should have access to more resources.” The ministry will be implementing the previous reform developed by the Conservatives with a $46 per month increase for ODSP recipients. “What we are working on now is the implementation, and now it’s a matter of how quickly it can be implemented,” explains Poputello.

Some believe that the Ontario government may offer a realistic increase. However, some fear that a generous increase will mean taking money from elsewhere – most likely it will mean less access to affordable housing. Either way, people with mental illness in Ontario will continue to be penalized for being ill, which, reminds Lefebevre, “was not my choice.”