Harsh rules of Ontario Disability Support Program leave once-prosperous Trevor Manson struggling to rebuild his life.
By Laurie Monsebraaten | Social Justice Reporter | Mon., June 27, 2016
Less than a year after he moved to a new company to gain a promotion, the symptoms began.
But when “pins and needles” in Trevor Manson’s feet spread up his legs and dizziness left him barely able to stand, he had to quit.
The Toronto man hadn’t worked long enough to qualify for the firm’s disability benefits. So Manson lived off his savings for more than three years while doctors puzzled over his increasingly debilitating illness.
“I thought once they figured it out, they could cure me and I’d be back to work,” says Manson, who was eventually hospitalized for more than two months.
“But I’ve been told there is no cure. And if anything, it’s going to get worse,” he says, his voice choking with emotion.
At age 47 and diagnosed with a rare neuro-muscular disorder that puts him in constant pain — “my face feels like I just came from the dentist, all the time” — Manson turned to the province for help.
But to qualify for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), applicants cannot have more than $5,000 in liquid assets. It meant he had to collapse all of his RRSPs, savings bonds and GICs, triggering a hefty tax penalty and the loss of guaranteed interest payments.
Manson, who was earning more than $1,300 a week as a market researcher before he got sick and can’t remember ever having less than $5,000 in the bank, was devastated — and baffled.
“It just makes no sense,” he says. “This is money that could help me pay my rent and keep a roof over my head.”
Instead, Manson was told to put his name on the list for subsidized housing, where the wait is between five and 10 years.
Manson was already living frugally, renting a bachelor apartment near Broadview and Danforth Aves. for $965 a month, plus about $250 in monthly cable, Internet, phone and hydro bills.
But his $1,110 monthly ODSP cheque and $323 in special diet and transportation allowances barely cover rent and utilities, leaving him with only $200 a month for everything else.
With money from his collapsed savings, he has paid his phone and cable bills for a year. He has purchased Canada Post money orders to pay the rent until August. And the prospect of becoming homeless looms large.
“I am making my money last as long as I can,” he says. “If you have a disability, you aren’t allowed to have hopes and dreams or a nest egg beyond two months. It is no way to live.”
Reeling from the loss, including the realization that he would have to give up his passion for playing the drums in his spare time, Manson connected with the ODSP Action Committee, a group of people with disabilities advocating for a more humane system.
Changes Manson has suggested include raising social assistance asset levels so that people who become disabled and lose their jobs aren’t also faced with losing their homes.
Those who have RRSPs and other savings should be allowed to transfer them directly into a Registered Disability Savings Plan, where funds are not counted as assets under social assistance rules or subject to clawbacks, he says.
Manson would also like to see people with disabilities allowed to earn as much as they receive in annual benefits without triggering clawbacks, as is the practice in British Columbia. The extra income would help make ends meet, but more importantly, he says, the social connections would make life more worth living.
“I am already feeling pretty isolated because of all this,” he says. “It would be great to know I might someday be able to work a few hours a day and not worry about losing what little benefits I receive.”
Manson’s MPP, Peter Tabuns (NDP — Toronto-Danforth), is frustrated by the province’s harsh treatment of people with disabilities.
“This is a disturbing story of a man who was faced with a whole bunch of really unpalatable options,” he says. “We’re supposed to have a system in place that allows people to more than just barely survive . . . but it just isn’t there.”