Defining disability for social assistance in Ontario: Options for moving forward
In November 2018, the Ontario government announced that it would be undertaking major reforms to Ontario’s social assistance system. As part of the reform, the government announced that it planned to align the definition of “disability” used by the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) “more closely with federal government guidelines” (Government of Ontario, 2018). This is widely expected to narrow the range of disabilities that would make a person eligible for ODSP. This could have major implications for a vital component of Ontario’s social safety net.
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis will likely have changed many plans that the government has for social assistance reform. It is not clear what work the government is currently undertaking on changes to ODSP. If the government remains committed to narrowing the definition of disability, the implications will be serious and threaten to further undermine the program.
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear the importance of a robust social safety net for people with disabilities; and it has also highlighted its weaknesses. Many people with disabilities have compromised immune systems, and are therefore at higher risk from and have already been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus. For these people, physical distancing and other preventative measures will probably be in place for a long time – much longer than for the general population. Further, it is already apparent that people with low incomes have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. A stable and well-functioning social support system for people with disabilities in financial need will be crucial during and after the crisis.
This report explores the role of ODSP, the risks of narrowing the definition of disability, models of disability assessment from other jurisdictions, and alternative ways that the government could reform the program. Most importantly, the paper recommends that the Ministry focus on improving ODSP’s initial application process. A simplified assessment system would save time and money for applicants, medical professionals, legal clinics, adjudicators, and the Social Benefits Tribunal. These savings should be reinvested back into social assistance.
While the path out of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis will not be easy, the Ontario government can take action now to help provide stability for people with disabilities. At the very least, by retaining the ODSP’s current definition of disability, it can assure people with disabilities in financial need that they will continue to receive some basic support. With this current definition in place, the government can undertake a more thorough review of the ODSP eligibility and application process.