Ontario disability support rejections often overturned on appeal by provincially-funded legal clinics

The system for deciding who gets disability support payments in Ontario is being called flawed and broken. Most of the work done now at community legal clinics is handling appeals for people who were denied, most of whom end up getting benefits in the end.

60 per cent of cases at Sudbury legal clinic are ODSP appeals, 80 per cent of which are successful

Sudbury Community Legal Clinic executive director Terry Copes says 60 per cent of their work is helping people who were turned down for disability payments appeal. (Erik White/CBC )

About half of people who apply for Ontario Disability Support Program benefits get refused the first time.

Those who decide to appeal, often go to their local community legal clinic.

Ontario's auditor general found that last year, 21 million provincial tax dollars were spent at these clinics fighting a decision made by another branch of the provincial government.

Bonnie Lysyk also found that 44 per cent of all legal clinic work is handling disability support appeals.

Terry Copes, the executive director of the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, says it's closer to 60 per cent of their workload.

He also says that 80 per cent of those appeals end with the person who was initially turned down getting benefit payments. 

"It does suggest that the system is in some way broken," says Copes, who has worked at the legal clinic for 32 years.

Odette St-Gelais, 57, had to appeal to get Ontario Disability Support Program payments for her bi-polar disorder. (Erik White/CBC )

Copes says the increase in disability appeals has forced the legal clinic to say no to other cases it used to help out with, including certain kinds of landlord-tenant disputes. 

"There's a lot of other things we could spend our resources on," says Copes. 

"It's always difficult to cut back on anything. There's always a great demand for our services than we can meet."

Odette St-Gelais couldn't hang on to a job and she had trouble paying her bills.

But the 57-year-old Sudbury woman was originally denied disability payments for her bi-polar disorder.

"It was my only hope," she remembers. 

St-Gelais appealed and has had federal and provincial disability benefits for the last 18 years or so, which amounts to about $1,100 a month. 

"There's stigma. They think people are losers or they're lazy," she says of being on disability. 

Charles Tossell of Sudbury believes that the Ontario government refuses most requests from disability recipients to see if they're "serious." (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Charles Tossell was also initially turned down for disability benefits for epilepsy.

The 35-year-old appealed and won and has since fought other appeals with the ministry over specific benefits, such as moving costs and the purchase of new furniture. 

"I've learned over the years that quite often we get denied the first time around just to see how serious we are," says Tossell, who suffered a brain injury in 2007 after he was already receiving ODSP.

The CBC requested comment from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. No one was made available for an interview and no statement has been provided. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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