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This woman with disabilities gets only $1,169 a month. She hopes the Ontario election changes that

Many people with disabilities are hoping whoever wins the next provincial election will increase payments for those on the Ontario Disability Support Program. An Ajax woman on ODSP says she is often unable to meet her basic needs.

Disability advocates to rally at Queen's Park Thursday for higher rates

Alexis Wilson and her service dog Halo in their Ajax, Ont., home. Wilson longs for an ODSP rate that would allow her simple pleasures like being able to go to a movie with a friend, visit a restaurant or buy a book. (Submitted by Alexis Wilson)

Alexis Wilson has exactly $125 left each month for food and anything extra once she's paid her rent and phone bill.

With several health conditions leaving her unable to work, Wilson gets just $1,169 each month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), meaning she often skips meals and never gets the chance to fulfil other simple longings.

"I would love to be able to just go to a restaurant, a sit-in restaurant and just eat a nice meal. Not even an expensive one, just like a nice meal," said Wilson, 42, who spoke to CBC News Wednesday at her home in Ajax, Ont., east of Toronto.

Wilson is just one of the more than a half a million people who subsist on ODSP, according to Ontario's auditor general. She and others with disabilities hope the winner of the provincial election on June 2 will increase the monthly payment. Disability advocates will gather at Queen's Park Thursday to try to get the issue firmly on the campaign agenda. They'll call for a monthly rate that pushes recipients like Wilson above the poverty line.

Ontario's latest budget — which should be seen more as an election platform for Premier Doug Ford's PC party — doesn't include any increase in ODSP or Ontario Works (OW) payments, even as more people are expected to need the programs.

The budget anticipates a one per cent caseload change for both programs, with 402,984 people relying on ODSP and 243,934 using OW.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy was asked why, when the government is running up a deficit, it didn't spend more on the programs.

"We're investing more in social services," Bethlenfalvy said, noting government spending on its Social Services Relief Fund, which municipalities can use to add to rent banks, build affordable housing or support those in the homeless shelter system.

Bethlenfalvy did not directly address ODSP or OW rates.

Advocates call for nearly double current rate

Anthony Frisina, a spokesperson for the Ontario Disability Coalition, also relies on ODSP payments. He says the groups involved in the rally want to see a rate of at least $2,000 per month, given the federal government deemed that amount a "livable wage" when it set up the Canada Emergency Response Benefit at the start of the pandemic.

This increase would mean many with disabilities could live in accommodations that are safe, desirable and suitable to their accessibility needs, something currently not the case for many, he says. 

As it stands, people on ODSP have just $497 to pay for a roof over their heads and that "doesn't really cover anything nowadays in terms of shelter," Frisina said.

Anthony Frisina, a member of Ontario Disability Coalition, is one of many advocates heading to Queen's Park on Thursday. (Submitted by Anthony Frisina)

The current annual ODSP rates give recipients just over $14,000 a year, says Shawn Pegg, the director of social policy and strategic initiatives for Community Living, an organization that advocates for policy changes to better support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"You're 40 per cent below the poverty line," said Pegg.

The current rates also mean many have to live with aging parents and people don't know what they will do when their parents are no longer around to offer them support, he says. Others are forced to cope with living arrangements they would not have chosen otherwise, he says.

'I don't know if I want to live another 60 years like this'

Wilson knows what Pegg is talking about.

"I have this terror. What happens when my mom dies?" said Wilson, who receives some food and other support from her mother, a senior with a limited income.

Wilson, who has bipolar disorder, PTSD, arthritis and several other physical disabilities that limit her mobility, says she is considering medically assistance in dying if rates don't improve. 

"I don't know if I want to live another 60 years like this, It's a long time to live with very little money," she said. 

An ODSP stub with current rates included. People are offered $497 for shelter, an amount advocates say is no longer enough to pay for appropriate housing almost anywhere in Ontario. (CBC News)

Ricardo Tranjan, a political economist and senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says income support rates for those with disabilities haven't always lagged behind the cost of living in Ontario. He says they more than kept up with inflation from 1967 to 1993, only to fall behind after that.

"We have the income and the resources necessary to invest in this, whether or not we decide to do it," Tranjan told CBC News.

"And I think doing it is the smart thing to do."

What the parties are promising

CBC News asked the four major parties if they would raise ODSP rates and if so, what metric they would use to determine those increases. Parties were given more than 24 hours to respond.

Tom Rakocevic, the current NDP MPP for Humber River-Black Creek, says the party would immediately raise the rate by 20 per cent and would legislate that rates must at a minimum be indexed to inflation. He says the NDP would also "end unfair clawbacks for those who are able to work."

The Ontario Greens say they would double the ODSP rates as a first step to implementing a basic income and tie future increases to inflation. The party referred to current rates as "legislated poverty."

The ODSP rate more than kept up with the pace of inflation for years from 1967 until 1993, but that is no longer the case. (Submitted by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

While the Ontario Liberals did not provide exact figures, a spokesperson says their fully costed platform is coming and will include changes to improve ODSP rates. The Liberal plan "will include letting people on ODSP keep more of the employment money they earn and reducing the number of complex rules."

'Maybe there can be positive change'

Meantime, Wilson says hearing some parties talk about ODSP is giving her hope heading into the election.

"If we get a discussion going maybe there can be positive change," she said.

Wilson worked full-time before her disabilities, and could have small pleasures. Now, she says, she hasn't bought a single article of clothing in about a decade. If things break or she loses them, she says she just has to do without. 

Wilson says she is terrified of what will happen when her mother dies and she has even less support. (Submitted by Alexis Wilson)

If the rates changed for the better, she says she would probably just buy a book.

"I haven't been able to buy a book in over a decade …Yes, I can go to the library, but there's something special about when that book is yours … the smell of a new book."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist and associate producer in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.

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