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January 9, 2019

Why the Definition of “Disability” in Social Assistance Matters to PWLE in Ontario

Ontarians head into the New Year, more than a month since the November 22nd press conference that outlined social assistance changes. Apart from remarks by the Minister at that time that any changes would take up to 18 months to implement, we are left with a press release and a backgrounder as the only official information from the secretive Ford government.

OPDI has already offered an initial analysis that includes hyperlinks to other stakeholders’ reactions here. Since then, the Income Security Advocacy Clinic has taken a closer look at the proposed change to the ODSP definition of disability (you can find the backgrounder at their webpage which offers access to a related webinar). We have also had a legal analysis by David Baker (co-founder of the ARCH Disability Law Centre) and Gail Czukar (ex-CMHA Ontario, CAMH, and AMHO) that drilled deep to consider the policy implications of a stricter definition of disability on people with mental health and substance use issues (PWLE).

All of these opinions offer that PWLE stand to be collateral damage for what seems to be unknown reasons. Now Huffington Post reporter Emma Paling has seemingly connected the dots from the 2018 Ontario Auditor General’s Report (p.253), according to Ontario Coalition for Poverty activist John Clarke’s post. Briefly summarized, it was determined 44% of Legal Aid clinic caseloads in 2016/17 involved ODSP applications and appeals for clients, and billing cost $21 million (or 24% of all Legal Aid funding) – all to act against another Ministry.

Apparently, the Progressive Conservatives want to narrow the future definition of disability to pre-empt individuals with episodic disabilities (such as mental health and substance use diagnoses) from applying for or appealing anything more than the default Ontario Works level of social assistance in the future. Since ODSP offers close to 40% more monthly income than Ontario Works for a single individual, this can be a significant barrier to staying well and addressing one’s recovery. Arguably, it makes risk-taking less viable and one is tempted to “turtle” in place to keep supportive housing, subsidized meds, and case management services. This can only increase waitlists for supports and services in the institutional and community MH & A sector in the long run and negate the promise of more provincial and federal transfer payment investments.

This proposed change of the disability definition is therefore a significant one that unintentionally threatens the direction of provincial mental health reform. It is of utmost urgency that OPDI, PWLE and their allies speak up with one unified voice and to meet with the Ministers of Health and Long-Term Care (Deputy Premier Christine Elliott) and Children, Community and Social Services (Lisa MacLeod) to point out why we need to “reform the reform”. These concerns are real and could have grave consequences on people with lived experience and impact their aspirational recovery paths.


This narrative is written by Raymond Cheng, a staff member of OPDI.  It is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the voice of the Board, staff, or members of the organization, nor of the funder, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.  It is written for public awareness of issues and to create discussion amongst our membership.

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