It’s no secret that Torontonians with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, and there’s a fear among the disabled community that they would not receive adequate treatment while in hospital.
Recently, the Ontario government has made it even more difficult for them to self-isolate and afford basic needs, even if they qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
The CERB provides up to $2,000 a month for up to 16 weeks to people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands Ontarians with disabilities already receive income support through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but the maximum any single individual can receive already puts people 30 to 40 per cent below the poverty line at $1,169 a month. People on ODSP can work, but any income they earn is clawed back at $0.50 on the dollar and deducted from the cheque after the first $200.
After a month of uncertainty, the province announced on April 21 that the CERB would be treated as income if you are among the estimated 75,000 Ontarians with disabilities who receive ODSP but also qualify for the federal benefit (having made $5,000 in 2019). ODSP would be clawed back at the usual rate and an individual could expect to lose $900 from their cheque despite the federal government recommending the CERB not be treated as income.
“ODSP benefits have been very low for a long time. They are not adequate for someone to be able to live on,” says Arash Ghiassi, lawyer and Yale Public Interest Fellow at the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), a non-profit legal clinic advancing the systemic interests and rights of low-income Ontarians. “When faced with a pandemic, we know that poverty and disability are going to make it more difficult for ODSP recipients to be able to keep themselves healthy and keep all of us healthy.
“This [CERB] benefit is meant to go to all Canadians who need it, including people with disabilities,” Ghiassi adds. “It should not go to provincial coffers.”
As a result of qualifying for both CERB and ODSP, depending what a recipient earned before, some will get more money in their pockets than they did pre-pandemic and some will receive less.
“Some may argue that it’s unfair for anyone with a disability to receive more because they have lower fixed expenses than the average person,” says Ron Malis, a Toronto-based financial advisor who specializes in financial advice for people with disabilities and their families.
He contends that people with disabilities are getting the short end of the financial stick. “I would argue people on ODSP may have lower fixed expenses, but their discretionary expenses are also little to nothing so they have no wiggle room.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic is also causing confusion among ODSP recipients as far as how to properly report income, causing many to receive money they’re not actually entitled to and putting them on the hook to pay it back in addition to managing their own survival.
Meagan Gilmore is a freelance journalist who covers disability legislation issues for TV channel Accessible Media Inc. Before the pandemic, her ODSP payments were suspended because over the last few months she made too much to qualify.
Then in March, as things were beginning to shut down, not only was it difficult to get a hold of social workers at the ODSP, but Gilmore says she received a letter stating she wouldn’t need to report and that her ODSP would continue to be distributed at previous income levels. (In her case, zero.)
However, when she didn’t report her income for March, she received the full ODSP amount in April, as it was assumed she didn’t make any income. She had two choices: either write a cheque or have a small amount deducted from each cheque over the next 20 months.
“Obviously, I’m going to write a cheque for the full amount, but it’s one of those things where you think, ‘Really, you’re going to penalize someone for close to two years because you were unclear in your communication?’” says Gillmore.
According to Ghiassi, the difficult position Gillmore was put in is emblematic of other errors arising from the pandemic and the way benefits are treated if you receive ODSP.
“The issue of overpayment is an issue we’re hearing more and more about,” he says. “People are being penalized for applying for the CERB and then it turns out they don’t qualify for it and have to pay it back,” he says, adding that people have to pay it back twice – once to the federal government and once as a partial clawback from the province.
“It’s an issue we’re seeing again and again and an issue we will see more when time goes by, but it needs to stop. We’ve asked the provincial government to stop assessing overpayments and receiving overpayments for the duration of the pandemic.”