The Progressive Conservatives' promise to modestly boost disability support payments is not enough to fix an "extremely broken" system that has left many Ontarians struggling to get by, those who rely on the program say.
"We are at a dire crossroads for a lot of people with disabilities," says Anthony Frisina, spokesperson for the Ontario Disability Coalition.
Frisina, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, is one of the more than 500,000 people in the province who count on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for part or all of their income.
After years of neglect from multiple governments, woefully inadequate payments from the program have many Ontarians with disabilities subsisting below the poverty line.
The most a single person can receive through ODSP is $1,169 per month, or $14,028 annually. That's about 30 per cent below the province's poverty line of roughly $20,000. The gap is even more pronounced in some urban centres. Monthly payments are 47.5 per cent short of the municipal poverty line in Toronto.
"How are people supposed to survive on that?" says Tony Bensley, 58. Bensley has autism and Type 1 diabetes and has been an ODSP recipient since 2005.
He lives in London, Ont., with his wife, who is also on ODSP due to severe osteoarthritis. Because they're married, their combined monthly payment is capped at around $2,000. The soaring costs of living have pushed them to a breaking point.
"The worst thing really is having to count pennies every month and then having to figure out what gets paid … We're basically overdrawn every month. That's the reality," he tells CBC News.
5% rate boost coming, PCs say
A $245-million promise to boost ODSP rates was one of the concrete promises that the PCs made on the campaign trail. The party said it would increase rates by five per cent and tie future increases to inflation. It would be the first rate jump in Ontario since 2018, when Premier Doug Ford's government implemented a 1.5 per cent increase.
The campaign pledge was an unexpected pivot. The PCs' pre-election budget didn't include any increase to ODSP, despite projecting that more Ontarians will rely on the program in the coming years.
CBC News asked if there is a firm timeline for when recipients can expect to see larger payments. A spokesperson for Ford's office said the incoming government will "have more to say over the coming days."
Ivana Yelich highlighted comments Ford made after winning re-election. He said the finance ministry would make small tweaks to ODSP rates before the budget is reintroduced "because it's the right thing to do.
"We see costs going up," Ford added. The PCs have not indicated when the new budget will be tabled.
'It's not enough,' advocate says
A five per cent increase would mean another $58.45 per month for a single person who qualifies for the maximum ODSP payment — still nowhere near the provincial poverty line. Adjusted for inflation, the payment would still be less than what recipients were getting on former premier Mike Harris's last day in office in 2002, according to an analysis by economist Mike Moffatt.
"It's not enough. It barely even covers the cost of inflation," says Frisina, 42. Advocates have long called for current rates to be doubled to make up for years of stagnation. The Greens were the only one of Ontario's main parties to commit to that during the campaign.
The situation is harrowing enough that some Ontarians with disabilities are contemplating medical assistance in dying (MAID), Frisina says. "It is essentially a matter of life and death," he adds.
Bensley says the promised increase is "better than zero" but will only mean recipients don't fall even further behind.
"To me, this is just another slap in the face," he says. "It's just keeping it from getting even worse."
Bensley adds that he hopes more money becomes available for housing. As it stands now, $497 is meant for those costs. There are few cities left in Ontario where a one-bedroom apartment can be rented for under $900 per month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
"They need to get the shelter cost limits out of the nineties and into the 2020s."
Alexis Wilson-Kenney, of Ajax, says the current rates mean she's often forced to forego meals. Unable to work due to several health conditions, the monthly payments amount to purely "survival money.
"And sometimes it feels like it is not even quite enough for that," says Wilson-Kenney, 41.
She's skeptical of the incoming government's promises for ODSP, but says she welcomes the extra money, however limited.
"Maybe I'll have an extra $50 each month that I can put toward food so I don't have to skip as many days or I don't have to ask my mom to cook me dinner so many times," she explains. "Or maybe, maybe I can get some new winter boots this year if I save up."
Ripple effects for families, friends
Low ODSP rates also often have ripple effects for families.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Terri Todesco had to leave her job to be a caregiver to her 21-year-old daughter Anna, who was born with a genetic disorder and requires round-the-clock care.
Her exceptional needs mean a day program for Anna would cost $145 daily, more than Todesco was earning at her job. Todesco, 53, is trying to go back to school to begin a new higher-paying career so she can afford the day program for Anna and still pay her bills.
Higher ODSP payments for Anna could ease the burden of those costs, which in turn could help her have a more fulfilling life, she says.
With health issues of her own and no family nearby, Todesco worries about what might happen to Anna if she's not around to care for her.
"Would there be a group home? How much support would she receive? It breaks my heart that down the road she could be hurt, or not be treated well or neglected," she said from Belleville, Ont.
For Ontarians concerned about what higher ODSP rates would mean for the province's coffers, Todesco says it's about helping vulnerable people live with dignity.
"Do you realize how much you are allotted from ODSP? And would you be able to live off that amount if something were to happen tomorrow?" she asks.
"We're only one car accident, one head injury, a stroke, a fall off a ladder away from becoming disabled," she says. "And I would urge people to think long and hard about what that would mean for them."