social assistance

A response to “Ontario Welfare Reforms Welcome News“.

Dear Editor,

I’m writing in response to the editorial posted on July 31, 2018 with regard to Ontario’s recent “welfare reforms”. As a front-line social worker, a former recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program, and a current City Council candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, I thought I might help you out by clearing up a few things in regards to what you mentioned.

You are correct, poverty has certainly gotten worse in the last 15 years. You are also right that Ontario’s social assistance system is far too bureaucratic, and that people living in poverty spend a lot of time being consulted, without seeing much change. Ontario desperately needs an increase in affordable housing. These are all problems we can fix in this province, with the political will to do so.

Many front-line workers are stuck in a system that first devalues people on social assistance, and then penalizes them for trying to earn a decent wage.

People without decent, affordable housing or food to eat have much greater barriers to finding work. Social assistance does not cover Toronto rent prices, let alone food to eat or transit fare to get to an interview.

Any sensible business person would know that when people are invested in and supported, they can participate more in the economy. Cutting social assistance rates, scrapping basic income, and lowering the minimum wage lacks common sense.

We deserve better, Ontario.

Sincerely,

Melissa Graham

City Council Candidate for Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and front-line Social Worker

I’m going to get right to the point here. An increased minimum wage is not harming disabled people. It is however doing a great job at highlighting the ableist and saneist bias that continues to exist within employment in Ontario and social services.

When Bill 148 was still being debate, there were some who used disabled people to make a shameful and disgusting argument against raising the minimum wage, because they felt that employers would not want to pay a disabled person $14 or $15 per hour. Mark Wafer is one such person.

People in the disability community might remember Wafer. He received a number of accolades and significant publicity for hiring people with disabilities at his business (which just happened to be a Tim Hortons franchise). He now works as a public speaker encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities. He just doesn’t think they’re worth the new minimum wage.

Today I was reading in the Toronto Star about how injured workers are getting less support from WSIB, since the rise of the minimum wage. This is true. Once a person is deemed “eligible to work” by WSIB, their supports are reduced by what that person would receive at a minimum wage job, whether or not they’ve actually found work. Finding work is difficult enough these days when you’re not injured or living with a disability. WSIB’s formula is hurting injured workers. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that needs to be resolved. Injured workers need our solidarity on this.

I have a full-time job that I have held for almost six years. I’m fortunate now, but it took me a long haul to find that job. As most disabled people who’ve looked for work have discovered, it may be illegal for employers to discriminate against someone with a disability, but there’s plenty of ways to avoid hiring someone with a disability.

Not so long ago I went for a job interview at a non-profit social service agency. I read the job description and felt well qualified for the job. I did well in the interview, but at the end of the interview they showed me a new description, one that had added snow shoveling, and asked me if there was anything on that list I couldn’t do. I wish that I had come up with some clever remark about converting my wheelchair into a snowplow, but instead I felt shamed. That story is not unique. Similar situations happen all the time.

We’d like to forget that until recently we still had sheltered workshops in Ontario, that there’s a whole industry around subsidized employment for disabled people, and that social assistance rates still haven’t recovered from the Mike Harris years.

Disabled people seeking employment are often blamed for their employment woes, but the reality is the job market is set against disabled people. Despite all the talk from governments about finding disabled people work, disabled people are still an often exploited and undervalued labour force, living in a system that would like continue to exploit us.

Disabled people are not the problem, and neither is the minimum wage. Disabled people have the same value as someone with the same job or skills. Disabled people are not responsible for the ableism in the job market.

Disabled people do need to start coming together, we need to start showing solidarity and stop letting ourselves be used as a wedge by those without our lived experience for their own gain.

This week Americans finally achieved marriage equality, and my fellow Canadians cheered (and quietly gloated over the fact that we’ve had it for the last ten years). While this is truly awesome, it also tugged at a small quiet chord of pain for myself and many others.

Amongst the cheers, some quiet whispers: we’re not quite there yet folks, not yet.

For those of us who live in poverty, are disabled people, or are otherwise oppressed, marriage means giving up certain safety, and reassurance that the what dignity we still have will be protected. It is a right that is given to us only if we meet certain normalizing criteria, incomes, or self-sufficiency. It means making ourselves vulnerable not only to our partners, but to the harsh oppressive voices we’ve worked to block out as single people. To join the club, you have to belong in the club.

Now don’t get me wrong, marriage is amazing. I am happy for those I know who are married, and for those who are happily getting married as a result of this recent decision. I believe that if society values marriage so highly, then all those who choose to enter it fully should be allowed to do so without fear.

For disabled people, the fear comes in two forms: society and policy. The society part is what we often talk about. How society still views disabled people as burdens, and how that plays out in our gender roles. For example, when I was growing up I was told that if I’m lucky I’ll find a good man who could see past my disability and take care of me, and when I do, I’d better hold on to him. Now I know that any person I choose better value my disability and see me as an equal partner. The point is that messages like make good partners hard to find, and keeps us vulnerable to less healthy partners.

Even if we do find healthy relationships, social policies still stand in our way. These things are hard to talk about because it involves programs that we’ve been conditioned to feel lucky to have, like social assistance and affordable accessible housing.

This American author had the courage to say what I did not, but it’s still true in Canada, including Ontario. While disabled people can technically marry, to do so they give up already meager social assistance, or certain kinds of accessible housing (like what I live in), or supportive housing. Many programs for disabled people are designed around the assumption that disabled people are not marriage material.

While not nearly as profoundly damaging as an outright ban on marriage, these policies still impact the public view of marriage. It is an injustice to pretend these polices do not exist.

What follows is one of my favourite quotes from the Kennedy decision, taken from Mother Jones:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Don’t we all deserve that much?

On October 13th, 2012 the disability community once again made their voices heard on the streets of Toronto. They marched with a goal to bring recognition of the struggles and value of people with disabilities as we fight against ableism and other forms of oppression, but they also marched to celebrate and take pride in themselves as part of a community of people with disabilities.

The Toronto Disability Pride March began in the fall of 2011, inspired by the events of Occupy Toronto, and the marches against cuts to disability services that were happening in the UK. The March was also intended to raise awareness to cuts and events that were impacting the disability community locally, such as cuts to social housing and incidents with the Toronto Police. In that first year one hundred people gathered at Nathan Phillips Square and marched down to St. James Park.

The UN has noted that people with disabilities are largely excluded from civil and political processes and are overwhelmingly voiceless in matters that affect them and their society. Many people with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed against their will. Though people with disabilities are seen as less or not exploitable by the owners of the means of production, they are further oppressed by being left out of it. To put it in terms of the occupy movement, they are often the lowest 1% of the 99%.

This year we are noticing this oppression in the form of cuts by stealth, and a political scene that not only divides us by our various disabilities, but also by other forms of oppression such as race, class, gender, etc. In September, the provincial government put forth a draft standard to make parks and the outdoor environment accessible. This sounds great until you consider that the same government is eliminating Community Start Up and Maintenance funding to people living on social assistance, which many people rely on to find and keep their homes. They might as well call making these parks accessible the new Home Modification Program.

The accessibility legislation may get out foot in the door for changes in Ontario, but at what cost, but letting our government choose which barriers to eliminate and which to ignore, are we setting ourselves up for future discrimination? Where are the standards to benefit those with chemical sensitivities or mental illnesses? Who says it’s acceptable to leave them out.

The way the March was built also changed this year. Without a solid Occupy Toronto base to build from, we were basically starting from scratch. We discovered some of the perils and perks of grassroots group organizing. We came up with a new route, and made new allies that helped make our March a success.

We also discovered that for some people in our community the concept of disability pride is scary, the concept of the oppression of people with disabilities is still too hard to face, and connections between different movements in the disability community are something they are not ready to build. We need to work on that.

A question I often get asked about this March is what is disability pride. I think we can find it in a great many things. Being in the march, and making ourselves visable is one example, the solidarity we find in marching with each other is another. Another way I think we show this pride is by recognizing and fighting oppression. There are some people with disabilities who will try to tell you that oppression of people with disabilities, otherwise known as ableism, does not exist, that all we need is to eliminate a few barriers and we’ll be fine. I’ve actually gotten emails suggesting that. We know that’s not true. Anyone who’s on ODSP can tell you that’s not true, anyone who’s been asked to leave a disabiility grassroots organization because of a mental health issue knows that’s not true, and any parent who has feared having their child taken away because of their disability knows that’s not true. We can do better. For too long, the rights and oppression of people with disabilities have been discussed behind closed doors, or not at all, but through actions like the Toronto Disability Pride March we find our voice, and make ourselves heard in the chorus of movements.

It’s no mistake that the Toronto Disability Pride March brings out a call to build connections within the disability movement. It’s a call for equal access and equal rights for everyone regardless of their race, class, gender, sexuality, or what disability they have. This is something that seems to be lacking from the mainstream organizations and movements, and why the March will continue to forge its own path.

We call on our allies, people of every ability from the labour movement, the student movement and beyond. We call on those whose struggles have long been supported by people with disabilities to join our struggle and prove that we are stronger united. For more information you can find us on Facebook, or check out our website http://torontodisabilitypride.wordpress.com/. We look forward to seeing you next year!

 

Find out about the march

It’s not a question of if austerity will impact Canadians with disabilities, but a question of when.

We need only look over to the UK for proof. Coalition proposals with see the Disability Living Allowance cut in that country by 20%, pushing those people into increasing poverty. Hate crimes against people with disabilities are also on the rise. Some 47% of people with disabilities say attitudes towards them have worsened over the last year. A recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report concluded that “people with disabilities in the UK face harassment, insult and attack almost as a matter of routine, while a collective denial among police, government and other public bodies means little is done to challenge the situation”.

If you’ve been following disability-related news here in Canada, this situation might seem eerily familiar. With recent provincial elections in Manitoba and Ontario, there is a heightened awareness that healthcare, housing, and disability benefits in those provinces might be headed for the chopping block as the recession drags on. Consider the case of Ontario’s Special Diet benefit. When people started using the benefit regularly to bring their income to a slightly less impoverished level, McGuinty cut it back, making it much more difficult for people with disabilities to access.

In the Ontario provincial election, it was not only social assistance programs, but also accessibility legislation that came under threat. During their campaign the Tories refused to commit to advancing the cause of making Ontario a fully accessible province; they refuse to agree not to cut existing legislation, or to effectively enforce it. Municipal politicians are also unafraid to cut on the backs of people with disabilities. In Toronto, Rob Ford and his cronies have considered putting the accessible transit system and social housing on the chopping block, crucial services for people with disabilities in this city.

Much like people with disabilities in the UK, Canadians have faced high profile disability hate crimes in the past few months. In August, a man who used a wheelchair died four days after being viciously assaulted in his Winnipeg apartment. Toronto has experienced two situations involving police interaction with people with disabilities. In July, Police used handcuffs to restrain a nine-year-old disabled boy who they say “became uncontrollable” at a Toronto daycare centre. Around the same time, a man with a disability was killed during interactions with Toronto police. No one should be dying in police interactions in Toronto!

Perhaps it’s time to take a hint from across the ocean, and fight austerity before it has already won. The situations in Canada and the UK may not be the same, but they are similar. Not only are people with disabilities part of the 99%, they are typically part of the lowest 1% of the 99%. A major reason why we don’t have decent accessible housing is that the Canadian government would rather focus on things like corporate tax breaks…And the fact that 70% of people with disabilities in Ontario can’t find a job while ODSP continues to be the most steadily increasing item in the province’s budget…well that’s a more complicated issue that is partly bigotry and discrimination, and partly that disability organizations that are supposed to be helping us fight back have been pacified, their attention has been too focused on government imposed accessibility standards. We have Canada’s first women with a disability in the official opposition, but people with disabilities are still feeling powerless. History has shown that it’s movements, not legislation, that end discrimination. Since when is a government supposed to tell us which rights to fight for?

In the past two weeks, occupations have sprung up across Canada in support of similar movements in the United States and around the world in solidarity. People with disabilities are among both the occupiers and people who support them. Everyone can play a role in this movement. People with disabilities are bring given accessible supports within the occupation in Toronto that would normally take months to receive in their day-to-day lives.

We’re living in a system that really only pays lip-service to people with disabilities, and doesn’t want people realizing that their struggles are connected, so if this movement wants to change the system, and is putting the needs of people with disabilities on par with the non-disabled, then whatever the outcome, I feel that’s a movement worth supporting.

Please join us on Saturday October 29th, 12pm at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto for the Toronto Disability Pride March. Torontonians with disabilities have a voice, and it’s time we used it.


Ethno-racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario

Invites you to attend a community meeting to talk about the Social Assistance Review in Ontario on:

Monday August 22, 2011

1:00 – 4:00 P.M.

Ryerson University, 99 Gerrard St. East, Room EPH 222

AT THE COMMUNITY MEETING: You will learn about the commission the provincial government has set up to review all social assistance programs in Ontario. We will talk about the review and ask you to share your views on how these programs can be improved. The feedback you provide will be included in a report that will be sent to the commission. All identifying information will remain confidential. If you are an ODSP/OW receipt or a community member who is concerned about the future of these programs, we would like to hear from you!

WHO WE ARE: ERDCO is a small non-profit organization working to promote the rights and interests of ethno-racial people with disabilities. We work with other agencies in the community, sit on advisory committees, write briefs, organize events, undertake specific projects, etc. We receive funding from the City of Toronto and through Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

RSVP by August 19 to: coordinator [at] erdco [dot] ca 

Light refreshments, attendant care and TTC tokens will be provided