Sunday, September 6, 2020

Requests for euthanasia based on insufficient support for disabled Ontarians

By Taylor Hyatt
Euthanasia Prevention Coalition board member & disability rights activist

At the beginning of August, the Ottawa affiliate of the StopGap Foundation started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #ODSPoverty. (For those readers who may not be familiar, the StopGap Foundation builds custom ramps for businesses with one-step entrances in cities across Canada, to improve access for people with disabilities. Local StopGap teams rely on donations of building materials from local stores and time from volunteers.) The goal of the campaign is to make the difficulties – more accurately, the impossibilities – of life on Ontario's disability assistance system more widely known.

On August 21, I saw that someone responded to the campaign with the news that they had “enrolled in MAID.” Given the meager financial supports available to them through the Ontario Disability Support Program, necessities of life such as food and medication are now unaffordable. My heart broke for the person on the other side of the screen.

Eleven days later, CityNews Toronto published an article on the matter. It includes some responses collected from Twitter, along with longer interviews of ODSP recipients. After rent is accounted for, some people reported having little more than a dollar a day for food. Others have less than $5 in their accounts after the month’s bills and essential medications are covered. One woman named Kim, who uses a feeding tube, told journalists that she feels “like I’m being punished for being born disabled, like I committed some kind of crime.”

The maximum amount of social assistance a single person can receive each month is $1169. The addition of a $250 food subsidy allows her to survive on just over $1400. All but a few hundred dollars goes towards rent for her RV. Kim notes that six of her friends have ended their lives since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She has considered applying for MAID as well. Kim’s landlord is evicting her in favour of making money through AirBnB, and she will be unable to meet her basic needs once her new – higher – rent is paid. She sums up her situation by saying: “I have no dignity left… I don’t feel like I’m worth anything to anyone anymore.”

No matter how much I want to be surprised by Kim’s conclusion, it’s old news. I’ve been in her place – twice. First, I depended on ODSP in university, so that I could keep up with a full course load when financial support from family wasn’t possible. Strange as it may seem, I was truly lucky in one sense. Most of my expenses – including housing, transit, utilities, and cafeteria food that lived up to the stereotypes – were part of a flat fee that I paid to my university over the course of the school year. (Now that I have my own apartment and multiple bills, this isn’t possible anymore!) Though I was able to work full-time during the summers, a significant chunk of my income went towards the upcoming year…and from September to May, the measly leftovers only allowed for survival. One luxury in particular still stands out: a $3 box of French fries from a little restaurant in the ByWard Market. Relying on the generosity of friends for more costly treats was an embarrassment. Sometimes I went without; as much as I loathed it, it was what I did in order to avoid the shame of being in anyone’s debt.

In my last year of university, I landed a well-paying contract – again, with the help of friends. I was able to pay off my student loans, continue working until the fall after graduation, and build up some sizable savings. Once my contract expired, however, the job search was harder than I anticipated. Those funds ran out after about six months. ODSP was all I had left. By then, I had moved off campus to a tiny bachelor apartment with utilities included in the rent – one of the few in the city that was both big enough for my mobility devices and affordable while on ODSP. After paying for rent, my bus pass, and my phone bill, about $130 remained. Let’s just say my diet at that time was…not ideal. Month after month of this scarcity began to wear on me. At times, I was in a dark place, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to clouds hanging over me. Whole weeks went by where my strongest thought was that I needed to – to put it gently – “put myself out of my misery.” I'm grateful for the support of friends and loved ones, the lists I made of reasons to keep going, and the mental health supports I was able to use. Life-sustaining services like these are often out of reach for many on ODSP.

Three years later, I'm in the middle of another job hunt after confronting the instability of the non-profit sector. This time around, I have much less to fear, and yet much more. If the worst happens once my employment insurance runs out, financial support is available to help cover the cost of rent for my now-accessible apartment. This would leave me with a few hundred dollars more than I’m used to. Still, I’m afraid that it may not be enough to do more than simply “exist” and I have now had a taste of life beyond “the bare minimum.” For example, my beloved cat Nibs has been a real lifeline for me in these months of limited socialization. There is no way I’d be able to afford her food, litter, vet appointments, grooming appointments and everything else needed to give her a fulfilling life while barely scraping by myself. Of course, I’d be willing to do what’s best for her…but could I cope with suddenly seeing her handed over to the care of friends, or a shelter? I doubt it!

Premier Doug Ford has recently, and rightly, come under fire for suggesting that ODSP recipients should “get a job” since “they’re healthy and they’re able to work.” For people like Kim, that might not be possible, and their survival should not depend on their ability to produce quantifiable output. Does the premier remember that someone on ODSP can only earn $200 per month before the province claws back their earnings? Who ever heard of rent that cheap? On top of this, supporters of (MAiD) euthanasia and assisted suicide say that the procedures allow people to exercise autonomy in the face of life-limiting medical conditions. They forget that a person cannot only be pressured into ending their life by another person; circumstances like living in poverty, lack of needed supports, or fear of institutionalization can have the same effect.

As disability rights activists often say, one cannot make a free choice to die if they do not also have a choice in where and how to live. A choice, by definition, includes more than one possible outcome. The provincial government, and the social services it controls, need to recognize that some Ontarians are now making false “choices” to escape unbearable circumstances. The latest provincial slogan, “Ontario: A Place to Grow,” does not apply to everyone unless Ontarians with disabilities are helped to thrive.


ljean8080 said...

HEY Alex,here in the USA THE DEMOCRATS ARE SAYING Canada is a paradise for the disabled.

gordon friesen said...

That is an outstanding article, Taylor. Thank you.

Reed Elley said...

We have a disabled daughter who lives in her wheel chair most of the time and I am sure that she would agree with this article even though she lives in BC. She also has the same fears of the creeping euthanasia ideology which threatens the lives of disabled people. Thank you for this very personal insight into the lives of many disabled people who feel very vulnerable in our society.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Taylor, for helping me to better understand the needs of many with disabilities, through your article.

Doris said...

I was just reading this article and at the same time received a new news message from the Ontario Government. I have not really dug into this yet, but if they are only extending something that is not working anyway for most then this would not be all that is required to fix this situation.

Ontario Extends Critical Delivery Program for Seniors and People with Disabilities

TORONTO — The Ontario government is extending the Ontario Community Support Program until March 2021. This will ensure that low-income seniors and people with disabilities, many who are self isolating due to COVID-19, can continue to get meals and other essential supplies delivered to their homes in the upcoming winter months.

September 24, 2020 | Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility