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Disability Pension: The Double-Edged Sword

This is the tale of living life within the confines of Ontario Disability Support Pension (ODSP)... the social assistance that giveth and taketh away. I want to be clear that I am not pointing fingers; ODSP is a flawed system, doing the best it can –a system that is underfunded and understaffed. As flawed as it is, it is one of the better social assistance programs within Canada.

Imagine having to live on roughly a thousand dollars a month. A thousand dollars per month to pay rent, buy food, pay bills and do everything you need to do in thirty days. A thousand dollars a month is a lot when you’re eighteen, living with your parents, with no expenses of your own.

But when you move out your parents’ house you realize very quickly that one thousand dollars per month is an impossible living allowance. I live in a 300-square-foot bachelor apartment in Toronto. My ODSP does not even cover my rent. I do not live in government housing; I live in a market-value rental apartment – a nice one too. I’m lucky to have a support system that allows me the freedom to avoid government housing. ODSP provides extra to pay for living costs, which is great. They give my pension a boost of about four hundred dollars a month. My roughly thousand-dollar stipend includes a rental allowance.

When you have a disability, finding an appropriate place to live can be very daunting and limiting. A lot of amenities that are considered convenient bonuses for everyone else are things that you need, and absolutely cannot be independent without: working elevators, reliable maintenance, automatic doors on building entry, standard width doorways, minimal carpeting, in-suite laundry, easy access to transit and grocery and drugstores… just to name a few. Whereas many of my friends have the option of finding and being comfortable in a low rent, basement apartment or a quaint space in an older, storied walk-up building, I do not. I need to be in fully accessible environment that is properly maintained. I need to be in the city. That comes at a price. At this point, the questions would be comical if they weren’t reality: Do I want a roof over my head, or do I want food?

Right about now, you might be thinking, “Okay, ODSP doesn’t give you enough money to pocket; find a part-time job.” In the words of Hamlet, “Aye, there’s the rub.”

ODSP monitors your bank account. Everything that goes in, everything that comes out. If they see large sums of money being regularly deposited, they withdraw support. If you have a part-time job, you are required to provide stubs every month documenting your earnings. If you are making over two hundred and fifty dollars a month, they dock half of what you make off of what they give you. Example: making eight hundred dollars a month, ODSP is cut from roughly one thousand dollars to six hundred and fifty. So, having a part time job does give me more money than I would have without one, but I’m also losing money. Even with a job I barely have enough to cover basic necessities of rent, groceries and a haircut every month; anything beyond that is carefully budgeted for. Most cash gifts I get are put away, saved for later. The only time you get to work and keep receiving full ODSP assistance is if you are working while going to school; even in that best-case scenario, expenses are tight.

When I say that ODSP monitors my bank account, I am not just referring to money earned at a part-time job; if I receive cheques from family or friends for my birthday, or at Christmas, I have to justify those monetary gifts. I have to tell ODSP, “This was a gift,” or they will see the deposit, raise their red flags and claw back on my monthly support. If I have over the stipulated amount in my bank account at any time, I am considered financially stable and support is withdrawn entirely.
“So get another part-time job,” you say. “Make enough money so that you’re not forced to rely on ODSP at all.” And here we have another rub. ODSP provides basic drug and adaptive equipment coverage. This is absolutely essential. But if you make enough money to render the monthly pension unnecessary, basic drug and health coverage disappear with it.

I’m a healthy person. I don’t have any life-threatening or particularly complex health issues. But I do have cerebral palsy. No matter how healthy you are, when you have a disability there are expenses that make your healthcare and basic supports much more costly than an able-bodied counterpart. There is no way that I (even with the support of family, with all of their extended healthcare perks) could afford to be without the basic coverage that ODSP provides.

So, until I can find a full-time job that comes with coverage and benefits, I am caught in this endless cycle of counting my pennies and hoping that ODSP doesn’t find some issue with my expenses, withholding their monthly cheque the day before my rent is due, without notifying me (yes, that happens).

I have two university degrees; I am a certified high school teacher in Ontario. I’m not complaining about ODSP because I want to rest on my laurels. It’s frustrating to be qualified to do any number of things, but unable to find the work you need. I am grateful for ODSP, but I am frustrated with being bound to a system that creates a cycle of borderline poverty, one in which that it is incredibly hard to break free.

The job market for teachers is dismal; I do not have the luxury of moving to a suburban area or traveling internationally to find work. Right now I have two part-time jobs that are claimed and deducted from. I tutor for cash whenever I can, so that my shoestring can be a little thicker.

Until I can find a way to get a foot in the door of a career path, I will continue to write these blogs and do this work that I love, for as long as Disability Today Network will have me. At least I have the opportunity to do work that I believe in. I will continue to remind myself that even though it may not feel like it, I am one of the lucky ones – I have a supportive family who are able and willing to fill the gaps that ODSP leaves. Without them, I would not be able to live where I’m living, let alone have running water or working lights.

What’s your experience with disability pensions?

Layla Guse Salah
Blogger, Social Media Manager
DT Network