You Should Be Afraid: How Cuts to ODSP Will Hurt Us All and Why We Must Fight Back!

The following is a speech I gave at a Parkdale Against Poverty meeting on September 23, 2013. We were asked to speak about the provincial government’s plan to eliminate ODSP and move almost everyone onto welfare. The other speaker was John Clarke. You should also check out his piece in The Bullet: “Austerity Agenda Targets the Disabled”.

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The Speech:

We are currently being told that these are times of austerity – times of cutbacks in order to ensure a healthy economy. It is important to think about how it is that poor people are hit disproportionately hard and rich people are getting richer. The richest 1% in the world own 95% of the world’s resources. The worlds 1,210 billionaires own more than all of the property that the poorest half of the world owns – 12 hundred people own more than 3 billion people!

People on OW (Ontario Works or welfare) get $376 a month for shelter while those on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Plan) get $479 – neither are anywhere close the average rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto ($837 a month). This means that people don’t have enough money for food and rent – if either. But, here and around the world rich people aren’t being told that they have to tighten their belts – they aren’t told they have to live in substandard housing and make choices between food and rent. In Ontario, there are almost a million people on social assistance, nearly half of them on ODSP.

These two systems – welfare and ODSP were started because poor people fought for them. They were put in place very differently because of deeply troubling notions of who was considered the deserving and who was considered not the deserving poor. Disabled people – or at least certain disabled people are considered deserving so they get paid more while other people are depicted as lazy, as free-loaders so they get less money. This has always been a brilliant way of demonizing people on welfare to the general public and dividing different groups of poor people. It is how people on ODSP could say that they didn’t need to worry about the 21.6% cut to OW in 1995 and it is how people on OW can say that they don’t need to worry about getting rid of ODSP. “It doesn’t affect me” both groups can say. It means that we don’t fight together when we should be united because it is the same people – rich members of government acting in the interest of corporations that are attacking us.

The idea that some people are deserving poor people and others are not IS A LIE! Poor people are poor because we live under an economic system that creates poverty and because our government chooses to do things like cut taxes instead of redistribute wealth to the poor. It chooses to privatize services and sell off housing instead of ensuring that the most needy people in this province get what we need. People on welfare aren’t lazy – corporations and the rich are greedy – that is why people have to collect social assistance because they can’t get jobs because capitalism needs unemployment to function.

Those people who are on ODSP are given more benefits and assistance because they are deemed to be unable to work, are viewed as unproductive. Disabled people’s labour and contributions are extremely devalued. Disabled women are the last hired and the first fired. In 2006, half of employed disabled people make less than $15,000 a year in Canada – I can’t give you a more recent statistic because instead of doing something about it the federal government decided to stop keeping track. And although many disabled people contribute a great deal to our communities, we aren’t given accommodation and supports we need to be able to function in the employment market. Getting rid of ODSP isn’t about making things better for disabled people – it is about tweaking the definition of who is considered the deserving poor. It is about attacking the little stability disabled people have and forcing them into precarious and under paid employment in order to drive wages down across the province. The plan is to make those collecting disability benefits far fewer – if they ever report any employment income they would be kicked off and put on welfare. So those few people who are left on disability benefits would forever be unable to do any work – including selling art, performing, or getting paid even the smallest amounts.

Everyone else, according to the government’s plan so far would lose their benefits – this means people currently on ODSP and those on welfare. I am sure there are many people in this room who, like me, have lost a tooth (or maybe more) because they were on welfare and didn’t have proper dental benefits. The government wants to take those benefits away from pretty much everyone when, instead, we should all have basic dental coverage. Things like orthotics and dental coverage are key to people’s quality of life and the Liberals want to take that away.

We have already seen more people becoming homeless because that same government cut the community start-up benefit and special diet. Now they want to cut or totally remove people’s drug benefits. Make no doubt about it, people will die. We already know that poverty leads to serious and often lifelong health problems – now the government is planning on making that worse!

I have been off of social assistance for a year now. I spent more than the last decade on welfare and then ODSP. The difference in my life between the two – both in terms of how I was treated and in terms of income was huge. That is the case for everyone on ODSP who I know. ODSP is still not enough but it is a great deal better than welfare and I think all of us have a responsibility to work to keep it while we fight to raise the rates for everyone.

Now, what I am talking about may be scary for people currently on ODSP or who are hoping to get on ODSP. I don’t want to mislead you – I think you should be afraid. Anyone who is poor or views themselves as an ally to the poor should be afraid right now. However, there is a big difference between fear and hopelessness. Social assistance as we know it was created because people fought for it. People saw their individual and collective misery, were afraid of not keeping their housing, not having food and fought for something better. We know that there is hope. We know that if all of us come together along with everyone else on social assistance and our allies that we can not only keep what we have but we can work to get what we actually need – enough for everyone on social assistance to not only survive (which we still have to win) but also to thrive.

There are times when poor people have no choice but to fight back. This is one of those times. It won’t be easy. It will take all of us doing a lot of work – talking to everyone we know about it, coming out to meetings and most importantly to demonstrations. We must fight back. We must fight to win and we will win.

In-text citations on this page:

The Bullet: “Austerity Agenda Targets the Disabled”



Capitalism requires poverty in order to function properly. To ensure profits, the labour market must be undervalued and this is done the most successfully when there is a large number of people who are desperate for money; therefore, they will take low paying and/or dangerous jobs. Disabled people’s labour is consistently undervalued and this has significant detrimental effects on our capacity to support ourselves and have a quality of life that is acceptable or that is on par with the rest of society.

The labour of disabled people has, at times, been so seriously undervalued that it became law that we could not work. For instance during the American New Deal programs in the 1930s, many disabled people were not allowed to work and were given shamefully low amounts to live on because they were considered substandard. Rather than create make work programs for disabled people like it did for other workers at the time, the government deemed most disabled people ineligible. Not allowing disabled people to work meant that they were undervalued as labourers and as citizens.

Today, it can be illegal for disabled people to work under some government programs. However, it is more common for disabled people to encounter work disincentives which mean that large portions of people’s work income are taken by the government. These continue to occur even though in several provinces and states, one study found that eliminating financial disincentives cost the government about $110 per person on assistance but meant an increase of annual income for people on assistance* of about $2,400.

Work disincentives also include the loss of health and other benefits that leave many disabled people with no choice but to stay unemployed so they can continue to get attendant care, health care, drug and dental coverage and other benefits.

Indeed, disabled people have an unemployment rate that is twice as high and labour non-participation rates four times as high as non-disabled individuals. In the United States, just 38 percent of disabled people have jobs whereas 78 percent of non-disabled people are employed. Psych survivors and people with mental health issues have the highest rates of unemployment among the disabled, at 80%iii. One-half of employed disabled people earn under $15,000 annually in Canada. In the United States, your chances of being poor are about one in four if you are a working-age disabled person but only about one in ten if you are non-disabled. For disabled people, poverty and unemployment are painfully common.

*This was for everyone on assistance, not just disabled people.

Incarceration and Institutionalization: Disability and Imprisonment

This is the speech that I gave for Living the Limit: Criminalization, Incarceration and the Law. It was a book launch for Love and Struggle: My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond by David Gilbert and Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade. I started by thanking both of them and the organizers.

I have been asked to speak about disability, disabled people and incarceration. I want to first acknowledge that we are on Indigenous land, not as a token effort, but out of both respect and the understanding that when we talk about prison and when we talk about disability that First Nations people are over represented in both populations both as a consequence and as a part of the ongoing colonial process.

I also want to acknowledge that I am disabled and I am white and both of these things inform my experiences and understanding of this issue. I am coming to this panel as an activist and an ally not as someone who is bringing forward demands about prison justice from my own experience.

When I talk about disability, I define it as a political label used to marginalize people who are considered abnormal, deviant, and/or under or unproductive. Disability is a political category, not a biological one and this is why who is classified as disabled has shifted over time. If I were giving this speech in the 1910s I would likely be talking about women, racialized people, poor people, gay, lesbian queer and trans people because, at the time, they were seen to be disabled. All of these groups were seen to be intellectually, or physically, inferior – and often all 3.

Just because I made a distinction between people who would be categorized as disabled 100 years ago and now does not mean that those groups are not over represented within disabled communities as a whole. Most disabled people are racialized, are women and/or are poor. When I talk about disabled people, please remember that most of us have intersecting oppressions that inform our labels and our experiences of disability.

Just to give you an idea about rates of disability in Canada: estimates of the number of federal prisoners who are considered to have psychiatric disabilities are as high as 25%. HIV/AIDS transmission rates are 10 times higher in prisons than in the general population with almost 4% of women and 2% of men being HIV positive. And, 20-30% of criminalized people are intellectually disabled. But, in addition to prisons, there are also institutions which hold primarily intellectually and psychiatrically disabled people against their will. But, this isn’t to erase the many physically disabled people who are forced into nursing homes or other involuntary institutions.

To give you a little background: mass incarceration of undesirables entered a new era in the mid to late 1800s with the entrenchment of eugenic values. Eugenics is the ideology that promotes the breeding of the ‘fit’ (so, rich and middle-class, white people) and discouraged the reproduction of the ‘unfit’ or marginalized people, largely through segregation and/or sterilization. Eugenics was seen as a biological solution to social problems – for if you want to eliminate poverty, get rid of poor people.

Physical removal of disabled people became, from the eugenic perspective, a social necessity in order to save the white race from degeneration, including disability and inter-racial mixing – prison and institution populations swelled. The distinction between the two was often ambiguous. Institutions were designed like prisons both architecturally and functionally.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The language of eugenics has fallen out of favour but the act of incarcerating marginalized people continues on mass. However, by this time, deinstitutionalization of institutions that held disabled people was well under way. Pychiatric hospitals and institutions for physically and/or intellectually disabled people were downsized and people were moved into the community. This happened on a massive scale, for example, Since 1970, Canada has eliminated 50,000 psychiatric beds.

There were many promises made about how people in institutions would be provided support. But in reality, while some people did get support and some people thrived with or without support, these institutions were shutdown to save money and little resources were made available to people who were deinstitutionalized. To be clear, I am against prisons and incarceration in all of their forms, including institutions, however, it is completely unacceptable to take a person who has been in an institution for a year or five or twenty and hand them a couple of bucks and a bus ticket and say good luck.

Then more cuts came. In 1995, Ontario works, or welfare, was cut by 21.6%. More people became homeless, user fees were implemented for programming that had previously been free and then, in 1998, panhandling and squeegeeing were criminalized in Ontario.

By 1999 approximately one third of all homeless people in Toronto were psych survivors or psychiatrized people. Over 1/4 of psychiatrized people had inadequate housing in 2006.

At each step of the way deinstitutionalization acted as a doorway to reinstitutionalization in the prison system for people who didn’t fit or were ‘unfit.’ People slept on the streets, stole food and other things, loitered, trespassed, did sex work and sold drugs, used drugs and committed welfare fraud, among other things, to make money and survive. Depending where one lived, they could go to jail for many if not all of these so-called crimes, some of which could result in imprisonment for many years.

Thus, the neo-liberal deinstitutionalization was really about moving people from more expensive and supposedly more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons.

My point in this is that prisons and institutions are interrelated – they both target marginalized communities and are tools of social control. It is integral for people who work on prison issues and who concern themselves with social justice to take up justice issues for disabled people in prisons and institutions. There is no easy separation between the two. It is also problematic for disability rights organizers to claim that there is a distinction between institutions that incarcerate people for what they do ie. commit crimes and those that incarcerate people for who they are ie. are disabled – that distinction simply doesn’t hold up and works to perpetuate the oppression of racialized and poor communities.

Psychiatrized and intellectually disabled people are disproportionately incarcerated in the prison system today (and this is likely the case for physically disabled people but there is a lack of good research on this). This may well be the case for physical disability but there simply isn’t a lot of research about disability in Canadian prisons.

The primary reasons for over-representation are tri-fold:

1. systemic discrimination which leads to a lack of employment opportunities available and the inadequacy of income and other supports

2. the disableism in the judicial system which makes it difficult for disabled people to get adequate representation and a fair trial;

3. the fact that many disabled people face greater barriers to getting parole so they are held in prison longer.

Now I want to talk a bit about what the experiences are for disabled people in prison. In doing this, I want to be clear that I think prison is a horrible and unjust experience for everyone and I am not minimizing that by highlighting disabled people’s experiences. And, please keep in mind when I talk about disabled people in prison that prison populations are disproportionately disabled and that these numbers are going to increase dramatically with Omnibus legislation that the Tories are trying to implement.

There are a lot of ways that disabled people can be profoundly impacted by disablism in the prison system. Here are a few:

    • many disabled people will be put into medical or administrative segregation which can mean, among other things: no television, restricted phone access, no programming, no interaction with other people unless they are guards or, occasionally, cell-mates, restricted yard access, restricted shower and laundry access, restricted or no library or book access.
    • Assistive devices will likely be taken away from people so if somebody needs a cane, wrist braces, back brace, etc. generally speaking they just won’t have access to them. Or if they require equipment like a sleep apnoea machine, they will not have access to it.
    • People can be put in a higher security stream to save money on accessibility, For example, if there are 5 blind prisoners, 1 in maximum security, 1 in medium security and 3 in minimum security, in order to offer programming to all of the prisoners, they would all be kept in maximum security. So, in this example, there are 4 prisoners who would have had more privilege who don’t, specifically because they are disabled
    • In fact, the federal “Custody Rating Scale” and provincial “Level of Supervision Inventory” explicitly bases criteria for security streaming disability implying that disabled people are inherently dangerous.
    • Lack of attendant care – which may mean having to wait hours to go to the bathroom or not going at all.
    • Lack of language interpretation services, including ASL
      prison doctors can overrule anything a doctor on the outside orders so accommodations or medical needs can simply be disregarded.
    • Medication is distributed arbitrarily. If the prison nurse does rounds 3 times a day, you get your medication 3 times a day even if you need it 5 times a day.
      And, if you are disabled and you want to visit someone you love who is in prison don’t count on being accommodated, particularly if you use a wheelchair.When I said that the numbers of disabled people will increase in prisons with the new Omnibus bill, one of the reasons for this is that the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences will lead to an increase in the prison populations over all but that coupled with getting rid of house arrest for a number of offences means that many disabled people who would have otherwise been sentenced to their homes because of accessibility issues, attendant care needs and/or complex medical needs will find themselves in prisons.People, particularly disabled people, will likely do longer time. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act Bill C-39, doesn’t talk about rehabilitation or reintegration anymore, only public safety. What does this mean? Among other things, cuts to programming for prisoners. At the same time, the new legislation requires prisoners to fulfill the terms of their corrections plans before they are released but there may not be programming available for people to do this and if you are disabled and programing isn’t accessible, it will be even tougher. Fundamentally, it will be harder for people to get parole.Also There will be more powers to punish inmates for “bad behaviour” which means that for people who are psychiatrized or are intellectually disabled, people could be facing these punishments on a daily basis (not that they aren’t now) and it could be used to deny them parole.For these reasons, as well as specific attacks on First Nations and immigrant communities, and its regressive nature as a whole, this law is dangerous and could be devastating to marginalized communities. So, in the short term it is important that we fight the Omnibus Bill and ensure that marginalized people and their demands, including disabled people, are a part of this fight. Also in the short term, come on Friday, March 16 at noon to College and Bay and take action against more austerity measures – more cuts to social programs and demand decent income, housing and pubic services for all. In the medium-term we have to build bridges between what have often been disparate movements: disability justice and prison justice, and ensure that disabled people and our demands are incorporated into anti-prison organizing. We also have to recognize how poverty, disablism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy and heterosexism all interlock and we have to combat all of these things in order to defeat the systems that incarcerate certain bodies and privilege others. And, Ultimately, we need to fight for a just society in which all of us are accommodated and have the opportunity to thrive. And I have said this many times, but it is nevertheless true, when I say we have to fight, I mean it. We cannot simply ask for change, we have to demand it and we have to create the conditions to make it happen. And we have to Fight to Win and fight until we win but we can win and we will win.

In-text links used in this post:

Love and Struggle: My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond

Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law