In March, Canadians who had lost income due to COVID-19 become eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). With a few clicks, millions of people whose work had been disrupted by the pandemic could gain access to $2,000 a month ($1,800 after tax).

When online applications for CERB opened, Ontarians with disabilities were stuck in limbo, trying to determine which social assistance programs could meet their needs even as neighbours stocked up on toilet paper and stores charged a markup on hand sanitizer.

The differences between CERB and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) expose the ableist assumptions embedded in the COVID-19 response and raise questions about whose costs of living “deserve” subsidies. While CERB makes payments available with minimal screening, ODSP offers a much smaller amount of support with more strings attached.

How does ODSP work?

A single person in Ontario who qualifies for ODSP can receive up to $1,169 a month. Qualifying for ODSP is an invasive and time-consuming process. First, applicants have to go through a financial assessment. If applicants meet the criteria for means testing, the next step is to provide medical evidence of a disability.

Applicants who meet both requirements and become recipients of ODSP are then subject to strict limits on assets and income. Each month, any income over $200 is clawed back to the tune of 50 cents of every dollar and even gifts from family members could result in deductions. In short, the ODSP application reinforces a medical model of disability, the oversight places personal spending under public scrutiny and the payments still leave recipients living under the poverty line.

Compared to the conditions imposed by provincial programs like ODSP, CERB looks like a pretty good deal. But the majority of ODSP recipients are not eligible for CERB. The federal emergency benefit is not designed to replace existing social assistance. One of the criteria for CERB is earned income in 2019. Yet provincial disincentives on income mean that most people on ODSP do not meet the requirement of earning at least $5,000 in the 12 months prior to applying for CERB.

Why isn’t CERB supporting people on social assistance?

For the approximately 75,000 Ontarians with disabilities who are eligible for both ODSP and the federal emergency benefit, the province has classified CERB as income. This means that ODSP recipients lose $900 from each CERB payment. Counting CERB as income for social assistance recipients contrasts with the approach taken in British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. It also endangers other income-based supports, such as rent-geared-to-income housing. 

The only equitable solution is to either expand the eligibility of CERB to include people with disabilities who already receive some form of social assistance, or to increase payments of ODSP and comparable programs across the country to bring them in line with CERB.

The gap between income support for people who can’t work because of a pandemic and income support for people who can’t work because of a disability is unconscionable. Why does one group deserve $2,000 a month while the other subsists on less than $1,200?

People with disabilities do not have lower costs of living – if anything, transportation, medication and dietary needs contribute to higher expenses. Statistics Canada reports that in 2017, more than a quarter of people with disabilities could not afford assistive devices and prescriptions.

The pandemic has only exacerbated affordability issues. Grocery delivery has long been a lifehack in the disabled community yet the sudden popularity of this service has seen an increase in fees and wait times, forcing some disabled people to find workarounds like paying others to pick up their shopping.

Plus, a generation of disinvestment in accessible, affordable and supportive housing means that people with disabilities struggle to pay rent. Part of the problem is that ODSP is not indexed to inflation. While housing costs have gone up 48 per cent in the past decade, the ODSP shelter allowance has gone up 7 per cent over the same period.

What have governments done to help disabled people during the pandemic?

The government of Ontario introduced monthly payments of $100 for individuals on ODSP who are not receiving CERB. It’s not much and it’s not easy to access. While CERB can be spent however recipients see fit, Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services requires applicants to provide details of their additional costs and contact ODSP caseworkers to access the miniscule monthly payments.

This process only creates more challenges for people already living below the poverty line: analysis by the Wellesley Institute reveals the difficulty of reaching ODSP caseworkers to discuss emergency supports, especially early in the pandemic.

On June 5, more than two months into the pandemic, the prime minister announced a one-time payment of $600 for Canadians eligible for the disability tax credit. There’s no application process, but there is a catch: in order to be eligible for the disability tax credit, you have to earn enough to pay taxes. As a result, this proposal does nothing to assist many of the people with disabilities who do not meet the income requirements of CERB.

For now, the measure is stalled in parliament, lacking unanimous support for an accelerated voting process. Opposition parties point to flaws in tax credit eligibility that mean that only 1.2 million of the more than 6 million Canadians with disabilities would benefit.

The federal government’s attempt to deliver relief through a tax credit adds insult to injury given the exclusion of people with disabilities from the workforce. Nationally, 59 per cent of people with disabilities were employed in 2017, compared with 80 per cent of the general population. Moreover, among people with disabilities neither in education nor employment, Statistics Canada estimates that 645,000 have potential to work with appropriate workplace accommodation.

How are disabled leaders challenging the status quo?

Even in the absence of state action for inclusive employment and adequate incomes, disabled organizers are building alternative systems of support that reject conventional definitions of productivity and value. 

In Hamilton, the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO) is providing food, cleaning supplies and legal information to community members whose needs are not being met by existing government programs. DJNO’s work on mutual aid shows what a disability-led approach to program design and delivery looks like.

First, it acknowledges interdependence. DJNO works with other organizations, including the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic to source, assemble and deliver COVID care packages. The importance of partnership is articulated in DJNO’s principles, which state: “We help each other to survive because we need each other to survive.”

In the same spirit, DJNO commits to capacity building, providing neighbourhood-based COVID support groups with context on the meaning of mutual aid and the origins of the movement among disabled organizers.

Finally, in contrast to social assistance, mutual aid operates from a place of trust. As DJNO explained on Twitter: “Mutual aid isn’t about policing asks.” Unlike government programs that impose strict limits, DJNO has told people who requested support that they can reach out whenever needed.

Writer and Walrus Fellow on Disability and Inclusion Aimee Louw also questions the assumptions CERB makes about employment and productivity. For her, the income requirement is not an accurate way to measure a person’s worth: “Someone might contribute a lot to their community in other ways, like through friendship or art or just presence.”

According to Louw,  the discrepancy between CERB and other forms of income support exposes the “lack of value put on disabled people by our culture and government. Often it’s hard to prove these things but now there’s actually a dollar amount.”

Although CERB is a temporary measure, the convenience and quantity of emergency benefits are an opportunity to push for permanent changes to the screening and scarcity of ODSP and other forms of income support for disabled people.

Emily Macrae is a writer and organizer combining policy analysis with lived experience to build accessible digital and urban environments.