From the very beginning of his campaign, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has claimed he is “for the people”. However, his proposed cuts to social services are damaging to Ontario’s most vulnerable people, especially those like myself, who live with disabilities.
According to People Access, an organization dedicated to advocating for accessibility needs, 1.85 million people in Ontario have a disability. That’s 15% of the population. Ford’s proposed cuts to healthcare, OSAP, housing and specialized programming such as ODSP are detrimental to people with disabilities at all stages of their lives.
Initially, Ford’s plan to clear the backlog of 23,000 children awaiting treatment had a budget of $320 million. Which was the same as the previous government’s, but it Ford’s initial use of it was scant and overly-ambitious. Ford proposed dropping the income testing measure, but the suggested funding amounts are barely enough to make a dent in the cost of therapy, which must be ongoing to be effective. Under Ford’s plan, families diagnosed children under six would receive $20,000 annually. Families with children 7+ years of age would receive $5,000 until age 18. However, autism therapy costs $55,000 – $80,000 annually. This therapy is essential to ensuring behavioural function and independence later in life. Yet, Ford’s proposed plan will see to it that fewer families achieve this goal. Consultation is in progress until May 11, when Ford’s policy adjustment is finalized.
Services At Home (SSAH) is another program subject to Doug Ford’s cuts. The program provides life skills training, personal support and socialization-based supports to children with physical and/or developmental disabilities. It is subject to the same funding scheme as Ford’s autism-specific policy and services a much broader, diverse and complex population. One branch, Ontario Independent Facilitation, shut down in March. What’s more, memos have surfaced which have indicated that SSAH waitlists have been closed and funding has been frozen since November, despite the government insisting they did not order the freeze. These cuts are not up for debate, and SSAH is a quintessential contribution of the development of Ontario’s disabled youth, who will not achieve a life of independence without it.
The healthcare system is another vital part of life for any disabled person, right from birth. But, Ford’s ideas on ending what he calls “hallway healthcare” puts the lives of disabled people of all ages at risk. Ford has already dissolved six health agencies, including Cancer Care Ontario and eHealth Ontario, and fourteen Local Health Integration Networks. The networks oversee at-home care and manage waitlists for nursing homes and some accessible living centres. They have been merged into what is now Ontario Health. Additionally, $1 billion will be cut from Toronto Public Health over the next decade. This would allow for so-called “efficiencies” like vaccinations being done at pharmacies. Further, three safe injection sites, two in Toronto and one in Ottawa will be defunded. Finally, Ford’s latest proposal as of April 24, is to eliminate OHIP’s $400 per day health coverage for Ontarians abroad. He claims that this will force travellers to do the right thing and get travel insurance.
What Ford is blind to is how these changes impact those with physical, developmental and mental disabilities like addiction. Merges and defunding will result in lethal oversight, especially considering the breadth of the opioid crisis. In fact, it is estimated that eleven Canadians die each day from opioid overdoses. This number could skyrocket. As for efficiency measures, they would leave disabled people at risk, as many pharmacists and nurses do not understand how to handle, nor the complexity of handling disabled patients. And, with regard to travel coverage, private insurance is often inflated and therefore unaffordable for people with disabilities.
The next major supporting institution in the lives of disabled people, children particularly, is the education system. Ford is proposing major cuts across multiple aspects of the public school system which will only prove damaging to disabled students throughout the course of their education. The first of these major cuts is eliminating almost 5,000 full-time teaching positions province-wide in the next two years. This will result in larger class sizes and fewer Special Education Resource Teachers.
In short, this makes it more difficult for students to receive accommodations to aid their learning. At the same time, larger, more hectic classes will leave them overlooked. Next, Ford has already eliminated the updated sex-ed curriculum, which addresses issues such as consent, safe sex, sexting and different bodies, including LGBTQ and disabled bodies. Without this knowledge, an already vulnerable population of developing, disabled young adults will be further susceptible to disease and sexual violence.
Next, there is a $100 million cut to repair funding for Ontario schools. This is not an outright policy, but rather the result of ending the province’s cap-and-trade program, which has resulted in a deficit of that number. The shrinkage in repair budgets may make schools inaccessible for students with disabilities, as the budget will be focused on classroom and sewage repairs as opposed to accessible ramps, automatic doors, accessible bathrooms and elevators. All of the above are essential for people with disabilities, yet are considered costly extras when the repair budgets are in arrears of billions of dollars. The Toronto District School Board alone is $4 billion. Finally, there is a $25 million cut to special programming which covers everything from nutrition programs to in school therapies. Ford argues that the $3 billion special needs bursary will fill the gaps, but with cuts to other therapy programs, that seems unlikely.
The education cuts continue onto post-secondary education. The OSAP changes, which include eliminating free tuition for low income students and eliminating the repayment grace period will impoverish students already on social assistance like ODSP.
ODSP, or the Ontario Disability Support Program provides adjusted support for people with disabilities. It should cover food, rent, hygiene and some medical costs. But the reality is, it doesn’t. The maximum is only $1,000 per month, and many get much less than that. The previous government was going to increase this by 3%, but Ford’s government slashed it by half, defending this by allowing ODSP recipients to earn $300 from employment, and changing qualifications for ODSP. Yet, the unemployment of disabled people is not for lack of effort. We do not have a choice but to deal with our limits and stigma.
The cuts across OSAP and ODSP and closures of independent living programs leave disabled Ontarians with fewer housing options, and a greater risk of homelessness. The accessible housing waitlist, which is already up to a decade long, will only grow. Also, it puts greater strain on our families who may not have the resources to provide for us, but are aware that accessible shelters are few and far between.
Aside from the fact that cutting social services is proven to be costly long-term, the Fords have a history against people with disabilities. In 2014, Ford was quoted saying that a group home for mentally and physically disabled youth ruined a community and he was surprised they were allowed out.
In 2011, I was an ambassador for Easter Seals Ontario, a charity supporting disabled Ontarian youth. I was about twelve years old, and I met Doug and Rob on two different occasions, in February and May of that year. I noted them being uncomfortable around me and my mobility equipment. They wouldn’t even make eye contact. It seemed condescending, but I attributed that to inexperience and tried to demonstrate my intelligence by discussing current issues and possible solutions. They laughed in my face and said to give them a call when I was educated and I mattered. Event coordinators tried to console me and convince me it was because of my age, but they were fine with other children. It was clear that it was because of my disability. The Fords had invalidated me, devalued my life and potential, just as Doug is doing with these policies. He is subliminally telling families and individuals that they have no value because they are different.
I am afraid for the future, my own, and the futures of the children who will have limited services and programs like SSAH. We all have potential, I just hope the coming generations have the chance to use it.
Still, one question remains. Doug Ford, if you are not for 1.85 million people, which people are you for?