A personal story from someone on assistance

By Christine Watts

This point of view is from a 52-year old woman who is living the low-income experience. I offer a personal account of my life on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program).   Although I may not look or sound like you might expect from a disabled person; some disabilities are not visible or obvious.

Until you or someone you care for is in a similar state, you may have limited awareness or concern for the daily struggles we face.

My problems began in childhood, with ongoing sexual abuse and neglect within my family. This resulted in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and Auto-immune problems: allergies, asthma, an eating disorder and in recent years, chronic pain.

My doctor, who means well, but is opinionated, knows of my food allergies to wheat, dairy and eggs. When I talk about pain in my joints, she advises me to walk more and avoid potatoes, as they are high in carbs. – Even if I grow my own!  Maybe she doesn’t see that I can’t use food banks due to allergies and potatoes are relatively cheap and filling. Like many in our society, she seems unable to see that my reality is one of scarce to no resources.

Fortunately for me, I have certain advantages compared with many low-income people. I feel less judged by others because I am able to work part-time. My volunteer work also helps to justify my existence. It is sad as a woman and mother, I feel the need to defend my right to live and survive in Ontario – in Canada!

In a strange way, I benefitted from an incident in my youth. Several years ago, I received a criminal injuries award, which helped, me buy a car and pay some overdue bills.  My family connections were broken long ago – along with my trust; and I have had no relatives who I could turn to for help, without being treated like a low-life loser. On this basis, I was denied any help toward higher education.

Other help has been offered and accepted over time, but only if it was intended to benefit my kids. It is painful to know my siblings see me as defective. But we all hatched from the same unhealthy nest and all have struggled to survive.

It is difficult for many of us to carry the burden of social displeasure within our own families but also within the larger community. Whether a result of disability from birth or how we have become less-than-able over time, we often live in shame and isolation – afraid to be seen as less-than and undeserving. We often see ourselves as hopeless and sometimes worthless too.

Many of us know what it means to barely survive, while we are hated  and scorned by “taxpayers”.  Yet we are often quite resourceful.  Many seek to fulfill only their most urgent needs – never their wants.

Many think of helping others because through our own pain, we have learned compassion.  Often we hold strong community values like: responsibility toward the environment –  whether our social surroundings or the natural world.

When we have addictions we are judged harshly, but anxiety and stress trigger cravings in all people – not only the poor.

I have met with community support providers and heard their opinion that poor people should not have pets when they struggle to feed themselves. But my question to them was: When did they become poor? Did they have the pet before poverty?  Should they be obliged to kick out their only friend or their provider of safety  and companionship because of circumstance?

I have been blessed by a certain amount of security, opportunities and connections. When I need support I know where I can go for advocacy and assistance. But shame overtakes me when I must tell my story to a stranger and account for my income, expenses and needs, in order to be considered for assistance. It feels wrong to be always in the position of suffering in silence or begging for help. And when I ask, I am very aware that there may be less for some other person or family because I am successful in my request.

In the past month, I’ve had car repairs, car maintenance and my basement flooded. I can’t keep my job without the car, so it is a necessity.

But my recent worries are a part of anyone’s normal life – except that I have no  emergency savings, and no budget for replacing the $80 sump pump that stopped working.

Low-income people are always in survival mode. We often feel afraid and helpless. Like many of you, I watch prices go up every month.   Unlike some, I have no flexibility within my budget. I eat less, and try to  use less toilet paper, soap, electricity, gas, toothpaste and floss.  I rinse and re-use floss too. Yes that is yucky but floss is  expensive and all these products are taxed.  So I too am a taxpayer.

Recently I have learned to fear the results of the Social Assistance Review. Social assistance policies are already harsh and punishing to those of us in need. In my case, although I receive more income than some, my employment income is clawed  back from my ODSP income at the rate of 50 per cent.

In a month when I have three paydays  instead of two, the higher income is taken from my next month’s social assistance cheque.  When my paystubs, which arrive by mail, are late, my income is reported late as well,  leading to an automatic suspension of ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program).  Instead of looking at ways to make the system more friendly to recipients, if only  to foster better health – which will save us all in the long run – it appears  the trend will be to once again cut supports from those least able to speak up.  The decision-makers seem to forget there are human lives and communities involved  – not balance sheets!