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.