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Dear Ontario politicians, people with disabilities are not election pawns

Melissa Graham

February 4, 2013

Another election is on the horizon, and once again social assistance recipients find themselves the test subjects in an experiment for votes. Anyone who has experienced life on social assistance can tell you reforms are needed, but when the call for changes comes in the form of campaign promises the lives of people on social assistance become little more than pawns for provincial power.
When it comes to Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak’s recently released white paper on welfare reform, the phrase that everything old is new again certainly applies. Hudak was a member of the former Tory government that separated the disability and welfare programs. He now wants to bring them back together again.
Hudak has proposed merging the Ontario Works program (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) into a single income support program; apparently to save about $140 million a year. He claims this change would make it easier for disability payment recipients to get access to OW programs helping them find jobs, along with tax credits for employers who need financial help in making accommodations for them.
To many people who are on ODSP but would like to find work this sounds like welcome news. Social assistance advocates have been fighting the barriers to employment that ODSP creates for a long time. But this proposal is more like a Trojan horse that will likely divide the disability community if it comes into effect, and it does nothing to address the attitudinal barriers and discrimination that often prevents people from finding meaningful employment.
For example, hidden within the list of recommendations admired by the Tories is to make employment searching a condition of income, requiring social assistance recipients be required to participate in activities related to preparing for and finding work through individual “Pathway to Employment Plans”. If you’re thinking that people with disabilities would be exempt from these types of policies, think again. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) will come into full effect in 2025. While this legislation presents great opportunities for some people, it really only addresses the physical barriers of employment, and has very little enforcement behind it. One thing it will do very effectively is put pressure on the Ontario government to prove their new Act works, regardless of the quality of work it provides.
There are people with disabilities who have gone to disability-specific job support programs who can tell you what this feels like – you go in with a business degree and walk out with a job as a Walmart greeter on the other side of town. People with disabilities in the UK know this kind of legislation all too well, it’s already happened to them.
On January 28, 2013 the UK government is due to make a set of changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA is the flawed ‘fitness to work’ test which assesses whether people with disabilities can get Employment and Support Allowance: a benefit designed to help and support people with disabilities into work. This test actually forces people off of the social assistance system in the UK if they are determined to be eligible for this ``benefit``. The WCA is currently the subject of political protests that have been happening for several years
The Ontario Tories seem to be taking a page out of the UK playbook. Another one of Hudak's bright ideas is to claw back benefits for people who have been on welfare for "too long," suggesting that able-bodied people who have been on welfare for a “long time” should see their benefits “steadily decline”.  He has not explained how long people would have to be on benefits before they are reduced and how large of a reduction they would face, or who would be defined as able-bodied. There are many people on OW currently waiting to get onto ODSP, especially people with mental health concerns.
As much as we would like to see people with disabilities included in the workforce, there needs to a plan in place that provides meaningful work for those who could benefit from it without putting others at risk. We need to take a lesson from history and remember how easy it is for politicians looking to get ahead to play games with those of us who are most vulnerable. Let`s not let a ploy for votes divide us, but instead fight for real change for all people with disabilities regardless of income.

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