Will disabilities law see light of day?

By MPP Toby Barrett

Last year I introduced disabilities legislation to provide incentives for people on support to allow them to earn and then keep more of their own money. Bill 23 passed second reading and was referred to the Finance Committee – but a year later we continue to wait.

Sadly, political partisanship has reduced what is intended to be a meaningful opportunity for developing legislative, to a last-minute horse-trading exercise. At the very least, Private Members bills that pass Second Reading and are referred to Committee should be considered by that Committee. And if a bill is referred for Third Reading, MPPs should be given the opportunity to vote on that bill. Under current practice, even though MPPs vote in support of Private Member Bills, the legislation never sees the light of day because the government refuses to schedule them for further consideration.

With a provincial election set to commence in just four months, many are desperate to know what will become of Bill 23 when the Ontario Legislature prorogues before the election period. Quite simply, legislation that has not passed third reading falls off the Order Paper and disappears.

Although it’s a program we cannot do without, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is in serious need of a few changes. Under our current system, individuals are penalized for working. Further, recipients feel they are being condemned to a life of poverty as they see continually increasing costs for electricity, gasoline and everyday items.

To that end, Bill 23 legislates that working recipients can retain the first $700 of additional monthly income, or $1,000 if there is a spouse. The bill would also raise asset limits from the current $5,000 to $12,000 for individuals, or $20,000 if there is a spouse also on disability. These may seem like small changes but to those on ODSP they would go a long way to boost their standard of living.

And although Bill 23 will not make anyone rich, it may once in a while allow recipients to enjoy some of life’s pleasures– like going out for dinner or to a movie. Seventy-three per cent of people with an intellectual disability live below the poverty line. I’ve heard time and again from recipients who admit they don’t want to rely on social assistance but the government seems to go out of its way to make it impossible for these folks to make it on their own, independently.

Over the past year I have done a number of speaking engagements to groups representing people with disabilities who are more than interested in seeing Bill 23 become law. Further, my offices receive calls each and everyday from people right across Ontario looking for these kinds of changes. Much of the optimism we hear in callers’ voices is shattered when they learn that the current government is stalling when it comes to encouraging further employment; or allowing people to keep more of their earnings; or ending the clawback of child support.

Being part of the working world provides many people with a sense of dignity and belonging. By allowing someone to work part-time while receiving assistance, we are helping to build confidence, and, ultimately, the economy. It’s regrettable that help for some of society’s most vulnerable citizens is being horse-traded.