ODSP Reform: Why Mandatory Employment Won’t Work

Ahila Poologaindran 

Since its inception in 1998, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) has been a parcel of Ontario’s social assistance program, providing income support benefits and employment support services to people with disabilities. Due to a recommendation in the 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy that identified removal of barriers and importance of employment support as a vital poverty reduction strategy, the Ontario government appointed Frances Lankin and Munir A. Sheikh to review the province’s social assistance program.

In October of this year, the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance released Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. By consulting various stakeholders for nearly two years, it proposed some recommendations that, if implemented, would radically change the system. Though many of the recommendations are promising, one particular proposal might take the Province backwards.

Under the newly proposed system, all ODSP recipients would be required to set out employment goals and a course of action to get there – a Pathway to Employment Plan. Devised in collaboration with a caseworker, a recipient’s plan would identify and develop a “pathway” to employment, taking into consideration his or her limitations and abilities.

If a recipient cannot work full time or at all, a temporary deferral would be granted and he or she would be expected to participate in activities identified in the plan to prepare for and find work eventually. A recipient would have to meet these conditions in order to receive income support.

In order to understand the seriousness of such a regulation change, it is important to contextualize the challenges that currently face the Ontario government.

  • For 2011-12, Ontario’s expenditure on ODSP totalled $4,101 million, excluding drug benefit program costs. In fact, the number of ODSP cases continues to increase at a higher rate than expected.
  • Only 10% of primary recipients report earnings from employment.
  • From 2009-10, 60% of new ODSP grants were due to a mental health disorder, either as a primary condition or a secondary condition.
  • In 2010, 5% of Ontario’s working-age population was receiving disability-related income. This number is expected to be higher of recipients of all disability-related income support sources were taken into account.

Despite the pressing need for including people with disabilities in the labour market, Ontario should not mandate some of its most vulnerable residents to find employment.  The above-noted figures are due partly to the systemic barriers to employment that people with disabilities face.

Without addressing some of these pervasive factors contributing to low employment rate, it is unrealistic to expect all recipients to find and maintain employment by simply creating a plan. Granted, the Commission recommended options that would raise awareness and promote the employability of ODSP recipients. Nevertheless, recommendations that highlight the employer’s role in integrating people with disabilities in the labour market must make substantial headway before ODSP recipients are forced to pursue employment options.

Research highlights that when many people with disabilities are employed, they are often relegated to the margins, receive low wages with no benefits, and are often the first to get laid off. In order to fully integrate people with disabilities into the labour force, they must be able to obtain meaningful employment that would make mobility within the workplace possible.

The Pathway to Employment Plan hopes to encourage and incentivize recipients to prepare for and find employment. However, it is blind to the fact that entrenched systemic barriers as well as employment conditions are not conducive to integration, even when the Plan considers the recipient’s abilities and limitations.

This is not to say that many recipients would not benefit from such a plan. On the contrary, the individualized approach to employment may facilitate a greater number of recipients into the labour market.

But recipients must not be threatened by reduction in income support. Rather, the Plan should recognize the value of volunteer work and child care along with employment-related activities. The value of an Ontarian should not simply be reduced to his or her ability to earn.

Ahila Poologaindran is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  She holds a joint degree in Political Science and International Development Studies from McGill University. Ahila has worked for the non-profit sector as well as for the Ontario Public Service. Her interests include migration, mental health, and social policy.

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  1. Michael Oliphant says:

    The Commission’s report says exactly what you’ve said here. Recommendations 10 and 11 in the report (on page 54) say that until such time that these structural barriers are addressed, people with disabilties should not be penalized for failing to meet the terms of their Pathway to Employment Plan. No one with a disability will be forced to take a job that don’t want or are unable to do. Rather than being “blind” to these entrenched barriers. the Commission specifically considered them, and has put forward a reasonable approach.

    • It needs to speak to *practicable* elimination of barriers, not theoretical (legally mandated) elimination. Further, the AODA is simply silent on the barriers facing many disabled persons, even those who are expressly considered by both the Ontario and federal Human Rights Commissions to have disabilities for which accommodations must be made.

      The ODSP offices, themselves, are not accessible, for heaven’s sake!

      I am more concerned that each and every single one of the recommendations is attached to a de facto rate cut for people on ODSP, which could, in some cases, reduce support by over 40%.

      I also think people who discuss rates need to make it clear that a 1% increase in rates *is* a cut in times when the actual cost of living increases more than 1%. Using that standard, disability support payments have been cut every single year since the beginning of the Harris era — and that is even before taking into account the actual reductions inherent in cuts in or cancellation of various “extra” programs.

  2. “…with eligible individuals and families receiving up to $1,500 and $799 every two years, respectively.”

    Surely the opposite, with individuals receiving up to $799 every two years, and families receiving up to $1,500, no ?

  3. I can’t speak for all people on ODSP, but i can speak for a few. We don’t have jobs because we’re lazy or lack direction. We don’t work because WE CAN’T! I was making 25$/hr when i fell ill, if there was any job out there that i could do, i would have found it. Do you think i want to live on what works out to be 2.50$/hr?
    I find it sickening that in a province with the average household income of 71,000$, the government wants to save money on the backs of those forced to live on 12,000$/yr
    I’ve worked hard my entire life, growing up on a farm, i may have worked harder then most, payed untold amounts of taxes, and now, that i need help from my government, it kicks me when i’m down…very sad.

    • ” We don’t have jobs because we’re lazy or lack direction”

      I think you mean, We don’t have jobs, *NOT* because we’re lazy or lack direction; we don’t work because WE CAN’T

  4. How on earth can people with disabilities find work when those with university degrees cannot????? How can you force someone with mental or physical illnesses to work, when they are suffering 24/7. Do people think we enjoy feeling this way?!

  5. Kristina says:

    a ffirst i was horrified at the thought of odsp pensions being cut, but the more research i have done I’m now in agreement of the propose changes.

    yes, there are many of us who are actually disabled, but i see the 60% rise in mental illness as something not a lot of people are willing to talk about because of controversial it is.

    bipolar is the easiest of the mood disorders to mimic. yes, i said it, MIMIC.

    there ARE too many young people being misdiagnosed with this, and to be honest I’m thrilled with the DSM-V because i see it as a crackdown. by too many young people who are drug users, yes i am saying it out loud, DRUG USERS, i personally know many, who by being drug addicts they’re the ones who are overloading the disability system, and they’re actually making odsp a CAREER!!!

    the proposed changes, in my mind, is the province’s way of weeding these ones out. the ones who are perfectly capable of being responsible, productive members of society, but mimic a mental illness in order to “get more money.” it’s in quotations because I’ve actually heard people say this.

    the stigma attached to odsp recipients is very unflattering to those of us who actually ARE disabled. it’s been referred to as glorified welfare, and to the lazy drug addicts it IS!!!

    i WANT to work and have tried to over the 15 years I’ve been receiving odsp. I’m an artist.now, and I’m successfully building my business, albeit slowly. I’m 39 and have finally found a way to support myself a little, have meaning in my life, and try to maybe one day be able to go off of it.

    by offering enjoyment support and requirements osdp is trying to help people help themselves. it doesn’t have to be a life ending support, because many people who need it are unable to support themselves due to.various, legitimate circumstances.

    but my own outrage is at.the group of lazy drug addicts who lie, scheme and DECIDE to mimic a mental illness, because it’s THEIR fault i have to hide my main source of income. it’s that group who are making me, and every other legitimately disabled person LOOK BAD!!!!

    if the system wasn’t so overloaded by lazy liars the chances are we WOULD be able to receive more help to live dignified, independent lives without the stereotypical stigma of lazy bum attached to us.

    odsp, weed them out!!!

    • You must be aware, of course, that there are those who will say that artists are posers, especially those who don’t make money, and ask you what you intend to do as a day job. Meaning they’d say if you’re “well enough” to “be an artist” you must surely be “well enough” to do “real work.”
      I think the rule of thumb is something about walking a mile in those shoes …

      And btw, the whole “weed them out” rap is used to *justify* rate cutting, not to *improve* rates!

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  11. (My parents were share-croppers) I know the feeling of hungry pains, cold from not having winter clothes and ignorance from lack of education. Being able to provide clear and precise information to your clients will help you give them a clear idea of what they can be expecting now and in the near future. When you decide that instead of a regular job you will try out an alternative way to earn money from home, you need to be just as prepared and organized as if you were working a regular job.

    • Indeed. And that with lessened capacity and more to do. Everyone doesn’t get the same number of hours in a day, or days in a week. Or the same necessary “chores of living.”

      And you need also to be aware that while ODSP has already charged back 50%+ of earnings, in addition, everything you earn during the last 2 years prior to retirement will be charged back against your GIS (50%) and GAIS (50%) entitlements. Regular employment comes with a $3500 exemption; not so self-employment.

      That’s right. There is a “fine” of 50+% for being on ODSP and working “from home” rather than working “for someone else.”

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  15. I understand your outrage, I too know people that use the system and the thing that i most worry about is that I’ll be thought of in the same light. I never knew ADHD or ADD were eligible for ODSP, growing up many kids were “hyper” but were still able to work, in fact in many cases it helped calm them down, but that was a farming community and there were no computers so all the work was tiring.


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    ODSP Reform: Why Mandatory Employment Won’t Work – Public Policy and Governance Review

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