Work and ODSP – The Case for Providing Choice

When I first started volunteering with people with intellectual disabilities, long before my brain avm and surgery, I was perplexed as to why the people on ODSP that the agencies supported didn’t work more.

Shouldn’t Everyone, Even Those on ODSP, Work if they Can?

I knew that many of these people were on Ontario’s government support system for people with disabilities: the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). I knew that you could only make a certain amount of money each month before your earnings started to affect how much you got from ODSP each month. And I knew that many people with disabilities were highly motivated to stay on the ODSP program because ODSP provides medical benefits that most jobs that a person with intellectual disabilities would not be able to obtain.

However, being still in my teens at the time and being blessed (cursed?) with an over-developed sense of fairness, I wondered why, if these people couldn’t work for pay, they didn’t volunteer more. There were definitely places in the community that were happy to have them volunteer.

Why did I have to go to school all day, 5 days a week during the school year and then spend 5 days a week working all day, and my parents have to work all day, every day to keep my family going, when the people that I was volunteering with could simply decide that working wasn’t something that they wanted to do, and sit around and collect a cheque?  The question festered in the back of my mind. I know that it festers in the back of many peoples’ minds.

A Change…but Why?

Fast forward years later, after the brain AVM and the surgery, to working with youth with intellectual disabilities. Not very many of the youth with intellectual disabilities that I worked with decided that they didn’t want to work when they were done school, but there were a few who did. I counted them as successes in my program, because, even though they weren’t out and doing something, they truly were doing what they wanted to be doing. I’d have rathered that they be out and working, because I knew they were going to get bored very quickly, but it wasn’t what they wanted. So we planned for them to be home.

I hadn’t resolved for myself why this had become “okay” for me at this point, except that I now strongly believed that people should be allowed to choose what they wanted to do in life – no matter what I, or anyone else, thought they “should” be doing.  It wasn’t until a debate on an internet  message board with somebody who thought that people with intellectual disabilities shouldn’t be getting any help from the government or government agencies at all, that volunteer service would more than provide for their needs if we’d just let it (*that* particular conversation got me right riled up, let me tell you) that I sat down with a pen and paper and worked out for myself exactly why I felt income support for people with intellectual disabilities was necessary and why I thought they had every right to decide exactly how much or how little they wanted to work while they were receiving it. That cemented my change of heart about what people on ODSP should/should not be doing.

When It’s Not Your Fault that You’re Not Wealthy Enough to Choose…

People who get to the point where they can decide how much they want to work usually do it in one of two ways:  They come into adulthood independently wealthy (or, by some twist of fortune, become independently wealthy), or they work really damn hard to get to the point where they can retire early or at least take a reduced schedule…and you have to have a fairly high-paying job to allow you to do this.

People with intellectual disabilities generally don’t have the option of going to school to get the education required to get a really high-paying job that’s going to allow them to retire early, or have a lot of money to invest. You can’t invest while you’re on ODSP.  In fact, you can’t have more than $5000 in your bank account at a time when you’re on ODSP, or you’re cut off.  The money you get is for survival, not for building a future.

It cuts down the options. No savings. No education. They can’t make the choices we do, because they don’t have the monetary resources to make those dreams a reality, nor the options of going to, say, college or university to get better-paying jobs.

In fact, for some people, meeting their basic needs on their monthly ODSP allotment is a dream that they can’t make a reality.

Once I realized how far behind the eight ball not just people with intellectual disabilities, but people with disabilities in general are in society, it made me look with more patience and compassion on those who chose not to find work while on ODSP. I did choose to work. But I’ve been blessed with a good education and very supportive family and community to help fill in the “gaps” that have made working difficult for me; not everyone is so lucky.

I’m not trying to be negative; I sometimes just need to acknowledge the realities of the world that we live in.