CNIB Ontario calls on political parties to update Assistive Devices Program

CNIB Ontario says the province's assistive devices program hasn't been substantively reviewed in almost 20 years, and is due for an update.

The agency says the ADP hasn't had a substantial review in almost 20 years, and digital tools must be covered

Marie-Claire Bilyk works in peer support for CNIB in London, Ont. Bilyk says she's heard from a number of CNIB clients who want the province to update its assistive devices program. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

When Marie Claire Bilyk drops an earring and can't find it, she reaches for her smart phone. 

Bilyk, who has vision loss, uses the app Be My Eyes to connect over video chat with a sighted volunteer somewhere else in the world.

"I'll have someone in Malaysia telling me it's over in the corner," said Bilyk, who works in peer support the Canadian Institute of the Blind (CNIB) Ontario. "It's very cool."

Bilyk says the smart phone changed everything in the world of accessible technology. Hers can give GPS directions, make appointments with voiceover commands, and identify text using artificial intelligence—to say nothing of rescuing jewellery. 

The problem, Bilyk says, is that while she paid for her phone out of pocket, many Ontarians with vision loss can't afford to do the same. About half of working-age Canadians with vision loss live on $20,000 a year or less, according to CNIB. 

Marie-Claire Bilyk demonstrates accessible technology on her smart phone. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

In Ontario, those with vision loss and other long-term physical disabilities can get help paying for adaptive equipment through the province's Assistive Devices Program, which typically covers 75 per cent of the cost for equipment and supplies.

But that program—which launched in 1983—hasn't had a substantive update since 2001, according to CNIB. So while white canes and magnifiers are covered; cell phones, smart phones and other modern assistive technologies may not be.  

Funding opportunities

"It's like a whole new world out there," said Bilyk. "There are so many amazing opportunities for low-vision people and deaf-blind people to engage more fully in society because of this technology but it's not available to those folks that need it at this point."

CNIB Ontario says it's time for an update. The agency is calling on all political parties in Ontario to commit to meeting with them within 100 days of the election to modernize the program. 

Beyond revamping the program's funding categories, Bilyk said streamlining the administrative process is another area of focus. She said that ADP users can sometimes wait months for their applications to be approved.

Although committing funds to any program can be a tough political sell, Robert Gaunt, executive director for CNIB Ontario West Region, says the cost of providing modern, accessible technology is outweighed by the overall benefits to society.

"Providing these types of resources and technology, it empowers people to become productive within their communities," said Gaunt.

"To be able to go into a work environment and use speech software to read text that's on a screen and be gainfully employed. The benefits far, far exceed the costs that would be associated with supporting such a program."

Here's what the parties say:

Liberal Party

The Liberal Party said in a statement that the program is one of the most comprehensive in Canada, assisting over 350,000 people each year.

"That said, people have told us that there's still more to do. The ADP must be modernized so that it can support more people. So as part of the Ontario Liberal Party's commitment to modernize government support programs, we are committing to a full review of the Assistive Devices Program."

The Liberals said they welcome meeting with CNIB representatives.  

New Democratic Party

A statement from the NDP campaign said the party is aware of problems with the current ADP program. 

"Too many people don't even know the program exists, and those who do experience lengthy processing times and an impossible appeal process," the statement said. "Those who do receive support often find they are still stuck with impossibly large bills for devices that are essential for their well-being."

The NDP said they are committed to fixing the program, and would begin to review it upon forming government.

Progressive Conservatives

Doug Ford's spokesperson, Melissa Lantsman, said that the PCs have fought cuts to funding for ADP. 

"We look forward to supporting the community and looking into the options that work best for them," said Lantsman. "Our legally blind candidate, Mark DeMontis, will be a champion for the blind or visually impaired."

Green Party

The Green Party has committed to meeting with CNIB within 100 days of the election. The party also says it would extend health benefits outside of the social assistance system, such as the ADP.