Saturday, May 12, 2007

Disability Must NOT equal Poverty

People do not ask to become disabled.

They do not wake up one morning and tell themselves, "Hey, today I'm going to get hit by a bus" or "Hey, maybe I will stand in front of that burning refinery and inhale the air and hope to contract lung cancer." Seems silly, right? However, many people in our society like to believe that those of us who are disabled are actually either faking their conditions or were at least in part responsible for them. Hey, uncle Joey ate himself to balloon to four hundred pounds so it is HIS fault he had a heart attack and can no longer work. Aunt Ellie smoked two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, so is it not HER fault she got lung cancer? Maybe I have trouble with these same people suing fast food companies or tobacco industries for their supposed misdeeds of promoting and selling a legal product, but I DO have trouble when the assumption that often follows is that it is the person's own fault ... so in order to provide equitable retribution by our society, it seems that it is alright to force these same people to live in endless and perpetual poverty.

I DO think if we are going to assign blame for these people's situations, then we should ALSO assign blame to those who drive motor vehicles, as they have a far greater chance of becoming involved in an accident than those who use public transit or bike their way through town. We should also blame wealthy businessman who have two martini lunches for the eventual damage to their own livers. How about those who vacation to the sunny south a lot or use tanning beds for the eventual spread of melanoma? How about we in general blame anybody who lives in a large city because they inhale pollutants and become sick as a result? This blame game can become perpetual and can and will encompass us all. Nor is it very productive. Those among us who are unfortunate to lose their ability to create their own wealth or earn it become poor - period. This is because our country has made the conscious choice of not providing a meaningful social safety net to protect them from poverty.

You may think poverty isn't so bad. The people next door to you who are getting by on welfare have a television set, their kids have clothes and compared to those underdeveloped fat-bellied children we always see in commercials about poverty in Africa, we actually delude ourselves into believing that poverty is only a state of mind here in America. However, poverty is an insidious and hidden destroyer of community unity and various publicly-funded budgets, such as health care, education, policing, corrections and other services that we ALL pay for through our tax dollars. Think your taxes are too high now? Think again, as the costs of health care triples, the cost of policing and corrections double as we need to build more prisons and hire more police officers to protect the rest of us from desperate people who will try to make money any way they can ... and our education costs go up, because well-documented studies have shown that children from low-income families require substantially more resources just to obtain a basic education than children from middle and upper income families. Mental health and cognitive conditions such as ADHD, depression, learning disabilities and so-called "developmental delays" occur more frequently among children of low and modest means than the children of the so-called middle and upper classes. If you ask any teacher, they can accurately tell who the poor children are in their classrooms just by the prevalence of these issues. We are paying a FORTUNE to keep one in five among us in poverty! Now, we know that accepting and maintaining poverty is everybody's business, let's move on.

Poverty means a whole lot to many people. That usually means they can no longer live in the living accommodations they have, even if they stayed there for years. They will have to find cheaper accommodations if such a thing exists in their communities. A family of four that once earned a comfortable income of $45,000 to $50,000 a year, now makes less than $20,000 a year. They will have to give up the car, which for many in non-metropolitan communities, means not having a job or being stuck in the low-paid job syndrome this causes. They will have to deplete any retirement savings they have created for themselves before they became ill. If they remain on government benefits, they will likely carry nothing to their retirement age and we will be supporting more and more seniors living in poverty as the years pass. For many, poverty means they will not be eating very much and if they do, not very well. Poverty is linked to obesity and malnutrition. I know of people that have less than $50 a month for food for themselves, and while they can supplement this amount by going to a food bank here (which is only possible every two months), it is impossible for them to obtain the types of food that will keep them healthy. Most eat a disproportionate amount of starch and other unhealthy forms of carbohydrates, which for many, only lead to weight gain. I know many people in poverty that are morbidly obese. Four times as many poor people get diabetes than those of middle and upper means. Poverty is a degrading and painful process, which can and will kill, but not without years of expensive debilitation first.

For the children, they often cannot relate with the other children in their schools. Children who have lived most of their lives in poverty do not know what it is like to go on a family vacation, have a family car to take a road trip in, or to even participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, theatre and dance. All this mish-mash about "over-scheduled children" means NOTHING to them. These children cannot go on field trips with their classmates and some have to resort to wearing hand-me-downs from an older sibling or a cousin. These things do not go unnoticed by other children, who often shun and ostracize them. Poverty is just another reason to bully another child. As a result of many of the effects of poverty, many of these children drop out of school or require special educational interventions which cost you and me taxpayer LOTS of money. In the meantime, their parents can't climb out of poverty. For a growing segment of the poor, class mobility is impossible.

Many people think that if people just went and got themselves a job, they would get out of poverty. According to food banks, more and more users are working full-time, all year. Minimum wages have not kept up with the cost of living. It is cited that those in receipt of ODSP, an average of 73% of their monthly income is required to maintain their housing. Many working poor are just one paycheque away from living on the streets. For people with disabilities, the climb out of poverty is much harder. Most employers and even many agencies that work with persons with disabilities assume that disabled people are only capable of performing low-level, repetitive tasks for employment and are incapable of doing work that usually gets better remuneration. There is an assumption that people with disabilities want to remain on their pensions and only to work a few hours a week to supplement what they receive. This assumption costs a LOT of money for you and me in higher taxes, because the longer a person lives with a disability in poverty, the more complex and more expensive medical care they will require. Many people who were previously capable of living independently with the right help are now stuck living in nursing homes or other over-institutionalized facilities because they can no longer remain healthy eating less than a couple of dollars a day worth of food.

Agencies often ignore the education and career aspirations of those they work with as they attempt to make more low-wage, entry-level placements to contribute to their "success" stats. Government agencies that fund them are complicit in the way that only placements, not quality of placements, count towards success. I know no less than five individuals with disabilities who have been trained and once licensed to practice law as a lawyer. All five are now on ODSP. I know several teachers, social workers, a dental surgeon, a PHd holder, two engineers, a couple of electricians and a former professional mechanical contractor, all of whom are ALSO sitting on ODSP. To me, this is disgusting! One of them was referred to a job at Wal-Mart to stock shelves at a midnight shift; another was referred to work in a scrapyard. Others were simply refused support because the funding formula for agency service providers makes it impossible to help their clients achieve success beyond the minimum call centre type job. Call centre jobs are only a valuable resource for those individuals who are able to keep their eyes on two or three different tasks at the same time, not necessarily good for somebody who is taking a lot of medications for example.

I wrote an Open Letter to Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community & Social Services and Minister Responsible for Persons with Disabilities, last March. Among other things, I did ask her if she would -- after she left politics -- accept a job that paid her $8 - $10 an hour, despite the fact she is trained as a labour lawyer and has substantial political and administrative experience. If she wouldn't, why should she expect that persons with disabilities that have similar training and experience accept these types of jobs? The fact of the matter is even if ALL persons with disabilities that can and want to work accepted these types of jobs, not a single one would move out of poverty. They would make the shift from the welfare poor to the working poor, which in my eyes is NOT an improvement. These people would still suffer from all the issues I described above regarding paying high housing costs, and not having money to give their kids a life beyond poverty and stress, etc. They would also not be able to save for retirement and the chances are 100:1 or even 1000:1 that the employer has no retirement pension plan of its own to offer these workers.

Maybe the trained lawyers, social workers and teachers, etc. in my life that are on ODSP or even worse, Ontario Works, may not be able to return to their former professions. However, sending them to Wal-Mart or a call centre is a very poor use of their education and transferable skills. If a person used to make $80,000 a year in their job before they became disabled and now make just over $10,000 a year, this definitely has to hurt a lot more than it does for those who have always been poor and were sort of comfortable that way. It is hard to get stats for this type of thing, but I read that 40% of those on Ontario Works in Toronto are highly educated and the employment supports offered by that program are totally inadequate for this group. Among persons with disabilities, about a third have post-secondary education ... and I am sure this is reflected in the ODSP rolls, although a good FOI request should be able to confirm this. Employment Supports under ODSP, as they are now administered, will not help this group one iota. These people are not interested in working at Wal-Mart, Tim Horton's or at some call centre that will likely fire them once they learn the person has a disability (e.g. yes, call centres are that cruel -- I am aware of numerous successful lawsuits and/or substantial settlements that arose from legal actions that have arisen from these issues). Agencies that wish to work with this group *must* develop the skills and contacts necessary to help make good things happen for this population ...

There are many reasons why people with disabilities are disproportionately poor, some of which has already been raised in this tome, but here is a summary in my view -- all a result of policy choices that were made by successive governments at a federal and provincial and to some extent, municipal levels, over the years:

1. Job discrimination/employers unwilling to accommodate various

2. Lack of a social safety net -- people coming into my office were
often forced to access Ontario Works assistance of first resort, not
last ... and as a result, by the time they get to my office, they have
lost their homes, cars, savings and in many cases, their families

3. Lack of a social safety net for people who cannot work at all or
only a little

4. A shift in the economy towards low-paying, no-benefits, unstable
jobs ... many of which will not or cannot accommodate persons
with disabilities (e.g. some have told me they don't have to adhere
to human rights laws and the employee can only fight this if they
had the resources to start legal action)

5. A mean streak in the social service system, which allows
bullies to operate unchecked (e.g. I am aware of a number of
employers that people are still being sent to that have abused
employees on OW or spouses of ODSPrecipients, only to be
told if an employee reports them or quits, the employer will
report to OW or ODSP theyhave been fired with cause to
enforce the "quit/ fire" rule that may lead to a loss of benefits
for 3 - 6 months)

6. Employers that continue to ignore the Human Rights Code
with abandon, by requiring all candidates to have a driver's
license and reliable vehicle (something most people on OW/
ODSP don't have and many people with disabilities are medically
restricted from driving)

7. The lack of a coordinated effort to assist people with
disabilities with varying levels of education and transferable
skills to get jobs that better reflect their skills and work histories

8. Professional regulatory bodies that impose huge fees for licenses
to practice, or standards of conduct that may infringe upon the
abilities of a person with a disability that is otherwise qualified,
from registering and qualifying

9. Attitudes/stereotypes exist in anybody from employers to licensing
bodies to employment agencies to even some peers with disabilities
that people with certain types of disabilities are only able to do low-
level, repetitive boring work and that people with these kinds of
disabilities are less responsible than able-bodied

10. Government policies that prevent people from having incentives
to take jobs, particularly for those thatlive in low-rental housing

There are lots of solutions attached to the above problems, but whenever these solutions are played out before the powers that be, we are told the government is doing SO much to help people with disabilities ... like a 2% increase is really going to help when inflation this year is pegged at 2.6% and we're already on average spending 73% of our incomes on housing costs.

Until my country begins to see these problems for what they are and starts to address them in an intelligent way, I will be embarrassed to carry a Canadian passport if I ever get to travel to any of the Western European countries, in particular, whose economies are worse off than ours, yet they manage to take care of their people and maintain a much lower unemployment rate.



Erika said...

This seemed like the perfect platform to school readers on a few little known facts. Theyre very basic concepts even poor people can follow.

The welfare system is only kept going in order to create jobs and a public image that your government helps the poor. The truth is that by the time your tax dollars finish paying out salaries and paperwork, the single parent gets only around 8-9000 per year.

It is easier to blame the poor and label us and ignore us. then to see what is going on in plain sight.

These social service systems are built on the tragedies of others. they are now INDUSTRIES built on your TAX DOLLARS.

You're not helping poor people. You're growing a bureaucy that is so greedy and fat, and all they have to do is label us mentally ill or stupid and they can keep being greedy.

Taxpayers would rather spend billions on health care and child welfare and shelters, rather then save money and actually help poor people.

It is digusting to live in Canada and live like i'm in the 3rd world.
I hate the liberal party because they promised to help and theyve done nothing. At least with Mike Harris you knew there was no hope.

The Advocate said...

Again, Erika, a very thoughtful comment. I think I might have been at your blogsite, where you have given considerable comment on the child welfare system. As a legal advocate, I am sometimes so angry and ashamed to be working in this system, which in my view upholds many of the values I do not agree with; for example, I sometimes feel my legal services and advocacy also contribute to the Big Machine in some ways, but in other ways, without my help, many of these people would not access any benefits at all.

There are some who will try to convince you that we have a great social safety net; however, it is only great until you have to use it, then you realize how full of holes it really is. I think you probably come from somewhere that you can read through all the political hype and understand this reality. Thanks again.