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Systemic Shortcomings in ODSP Review Process Could Spell Disaster for Recipients

by Kelly Pflug-Back

Systemic Shortcomings in ODSP Review Process Could Spell Disaster for Recipients

The Wynne government has launched an initiative to expedite the review of 30, 000 Ontario Disability Support Pension (ODSP) files whose re-assessment was determined by the government-commissioned Lankin Sheikh Report to be overdue.

Reviews are a routine part of the ODSP program, as the health of many recipients may change over time. Ideally, cases subject to review would be those of cancer patients with positive prognoses, people with addictions, people with PTSD, and other conditions which can improve over time.

According to many, however, structural flaws in ODSP's operational framework could make this process severely detrimental to the lives of many recipients.

“I work with clients who have mental heath and addiction issues, who are homeless or marginally housed,” said Sarah Shartal, a Toronto lawyer. “The process of reviewing involves ODSP mailing out a new application form, which presumes that clients will understand the paperwork. When I started this work 18 years ago, ODSP was sending written letters to blind schizophrenics. The system is run by a computer program. My clients would pass the revue, but they can't get through the process. Few of them have the same address or doctor as when they did the initial entitlement, and if it's not done in 90 days, benefits will be cut off.”

The legal term for this, Shartal explained is 'bureaucratic disentitlement'. “We don't ask people in wheelchairs to be able to climb stairs for administrative tasks, yet we know that at least 70% of people on disability have perceptual and cognitive impairments, and we expect them to understand these forms.”

Gloria Ichim, a Kitchener-based lawyer who specializes in ODSP appeal cases for Legal Assistance of Windsor, has also dealt with the frustrations of ODSP's accessibility deficits. “The forms are 12 pages long, and written in legal jargon,” she said. “A person without disabilities can't understand them, yet people with cognitive impairments are expected to be able to. On top of that, most doctors don't understand these forms. They could literally write “this person is disabled” and still have the claim rejected. Doctors don't understand what the system is saying, and the system doesn't understand what doctors are saying. The process can be incredibly traumatizing for clients.”

For Georgia McEwan-Hall and her mother, these issues have been a source of constant strain for the past three years, when McEwan-Hall's mother was diagnosed with Cushing's syndrome, which has since required her to have two brain surgeries. “During this time she has seen countless doctors, surgeons, and specialists,” McEwan-Hall told the Toronto Media Co-op. “Her condition affects her cognitive abilities, therefore she needed me and another advocate to fill out her ODSP application. She has been rejected three times and is extremely disabled, both mentally and physically. She is not able to fill out the forms and not all of her care providers are up to speed on her medical history. She has appealed the rejections and now has to wait until September to meet with an ODSP tribunal, where they will meet her in person and decide if she is 'disabled enough' to receive benefits.”

In 2002, changes to British Columbia's provincial legislation regarding disability benefits were linked to numerous suicides of people who lost their assistance during the process. More recently, in the UK, loss of disability status has also been linked to suicides.

“I think that before policy changes, we have to make disability issues, particularly those related to mental health, more visible,” said Shartal. In the mean time, Shartal runs pro-bono legal clinics for people who receive ODSP and is exploring the possibility of litigation.

Kyle Vose, Co-Chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, assists in running similar programs which include workshops and webinars to help people fill out the forms, as well as a 1-800 number which they can call.

Such services, however, are often insufficient counter-weights to ODSP's problems for people like McEwan-Hall's mother. “She has to pay for diapers, physiotherapy, and PSW’s who help her bathe, cook, and clean,” McEwan-Hall said. “If she had been accepted by ODSP she wouldn't have had to pay for all of the help she needs, and would not be on the verge of losing her home.”




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Topics: Poverty

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