Equipment program an election issue for people with disabilities

People with severe vision loss say the province should start covering smartphones under its assistive devices program.

Smartphones should be among devices covered by the province, say people with severe vision loss

Valerie Marsh says a review of the assistive devices program would help address the challenges of people with disabilities in Ontario. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Advocates for people with disabilities are calling on Ontario political parties to review the program that helps pay for the devices they use to navigate daily life.

"I think the assistive devices program needs to be updated and more thoughtful, because needs have changed over the years," said Orléans resident Valerie Marsh. She was participating in CBC's Street Talk, a project that gives residents a chance to raise election issues.

Marsh, who has severe vision loss, needs a device to help her read labels on prescription drugs and to navigate tax documents.

She's concerned the assistive devices program currently requires people, sometimes with low or fixed incomes, to pay for devices up-front before they can be reimbursed for 75 per cent of the cost. The program also caps the total amount they can claim in a year.

The CNIB, which advocates for the rights of Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, has held a series of events across Ontario to call on the provincial parties to commit to a review of the program.  

Fran Cutler, a public advocate for people with vision loss, says more and more people with impaired vision are turning to smart phones — and the provincial government should help cover the cost. 0:59

Keeping up with technology

The list of approved devices hasn't been reviewed since 2001 and there has been a dramatic change in the technology available, according to Duane Morgan, executive director of CNIB Ontario East.

"When I was doing high school, I would carry my devices along with my large print text in an actual hockey bag. And now I carry all the devices I would use on this iPhone," Morgan said.

Smartphones with text-to-voice technology, GPS and artificial intelligence apps can replace several devices that are currently covered by the program, but they aren't covered themselves, he said.

"They're not just luxury items anymore. They're lifelines, especially for people with vision loss."

The assistive devices program also covers hearing, prosthetic and mobility devices for people who have long-term physical disabilities.

Duane Morgan, executive director of CNIB Ontario East, hosted a candidate forum on the assistive device program in Ottawa Centre. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Candidates respond

Ottawa Centre Liberal candidate Yasir Naqvi said he would include more regular updates to the list of covered products, or set parameters which allow the list to adapt as technology changes.

"I think it's just a matter of technology outpacing government speed, and we just need to catch up with technology," he said.

Naqvi said it is also important that the process for being reimbursed through the assistive devices program be sped up.

NDP candidate Joel Harden said his party would increase taxes on top income earners and corporations to pay for an assistive devices program that is more responsive.

"I think we have to convene urgent conversations with differently-abled communities like this one, to make sure nobody is waiting for the technology they need to be themselves — to be active contributing citizens," he said.

Green party candidate Cherie Wong said her party supports more regular reviews of the list of covered assistive devices.

"I don't think we need (to wait) for 20 years to re-examine this plan. Instead we need to actively — every year or even every six months — re-examine the plan," she said.

The local Progressive Conservative candidate did not attend the event in Ottawa Centre, but the party provided CBC a statement.

"We understand the challenges for individuals who are blind, partially sighted or Deafblind and believe they should have access to high-quality, timely and essential equipment," the statement said. 

"A PC Government will work to address the concerns while ensuring respect for taxpayer dollars."