Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Story Worth Noting; A Man Worth Celebrating!

Should Physicians be Activists?

By jay keter

Created Dec 23, 2010 - 11:10am

Dr. Roland Wong is under threat of losing his license to practice medicine. He didn’t harm anyone. He helped people on social assistance get extra money for food.

The average Ontario welfare recipient gets $500 per month. The special dietary allowance program provided extra benefits of up to $250 per month to enable those with medical conditions to purchase more healthful food. An estimated 20 percent of people on social assistance rely on these extra benefits.

Wong, who specializes in occupation and community medicine, admits to completing about 15,000 special dietary allowance forms in one year. He not only signed forms for his own patients, he also signed them for people attending mass clinics arranged by anti-poverty activists.

Between 2001/02 and 2009/10, the cost of funding the special dietary allowance program rose from $6 million to $220 million. Claiming that the program was being “abused” the province scrapped it and directed the police to investigate 2,300 recipients of this benefit. Conservative city councilor Robert Ford, was running for mayor of Toronto in October, filed a complaint against Wong with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. The College must now investigate whether Wong engaged in conduct that “would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonorable or unprofessional”.

Ford insists, “A doctor is there to be a doctor, not to advocate for the poor...You can’t have people in the medical field doing that”.

Wong views the complaint against him as politically-motivated harassment and refuses to be intimidated. At an April 6, 2010 public meeting, he protested government policies that promote homelessness, starvation, sickness and premature death in the richest province in Canada. “Income level is the best predictor of health”, he said. “We have to invest in human resources - they are not to be wasted”. Wong points out that cuts to social assistance in the mid-1990s saved the province $2 billion dollars, while the special dietary allowance restores only 10 percent of what was lost. With regard to the charges against him, he stated, “I don’t know what will happen. But whatever happens to me, I will be happy because I’ve done something useful”. Roland Wong embodies the spirit in which all physicians should practice medicine.

Watch the 15 minute video of Wong’s April 6 presentation:

The Ontario 2010 budget, released on March 25th, confirms that the McGuinty government's "poverty reduction" efforts are all pretense. Specifically, the government eliminated the Special Diet, a vital benefit that 20% of Social Assistance recipients in Ontario had been relying on to buy food and pay the rent. This is the most devastating social cutback since Mike Harris slashed welfare rates in 1995.

People on OW and ODSP live on rates that are shamefully inadequate. Since the 1995 cuts, these rates have been reduced in real terms by at least 40%. For 15 long years, people have been forced further and further into poverty. Dr. Roland Wong talks about the relationship between poverty and health and the McGuinty government's attacks on poor people.

For more information about the Special Diet:​bullet/​329.php

Send messages of support to Dr. Roland Wong:

Source: IHWPOP

Author: Susan Rosenthal

Susan Rosenthal is the editor of PEOPLE FIRST!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Art for Art’s Sake?

Here is my latest story.

I met Irena about a year and a half ago. She is a member of the choir that is part of the play called The Book of Judith. Now if there was ever another story, it’s about The Book of Judith which is a whole story in and of itself. There is a blog about this play which you can find at

We were in rehearsals for a tour that begins in St. Catharines in October. At this time Irena handed me a book of her poetry. My first quick glance revealed a melancholy tone. I will type in a short poem at the end of this posting.

I recognized of course that I ought to interview Irena for this series of stories and she jumped at the chance. I quickly realized that she and I will need to drink a few cups of coffee (or tea or beer) over the next while in order for me to capture the whole story, if that is even possible, but here is the beginning. My point is that like many people Irena has never really had the chance to talk about how being labelled disabled and being an ODSP recipient influences her personal path, and the opportunity was more than welcome to her.

Irena came to this country with her family from the former Soviet country of Morava. At the time she was a high school student. She was already writing poetry and stories but did not feel that it was her place to hope for a career of her own design. Instead she followed the path that her parents, in particular her mother, laid out for her.

At the age of 18 it was recommended to her that she become a recipient of ODSP. She obediently signed the paperwork. In her heart she questioned whether she really wanted to label herself as disabled but it was many years in the future until she would begin to formulate these questions in her mind.

A dozen years later, Irena wants to establish her career as a writer and she has self published a book of poems. She frequently produces other writing, but she has never seriously researched how writing might become a career. She confessed to me that being on ODSP has made her somewhat lazy. It’s true that it pays the rent and it provides sufficiently for her and her boyfriend to have been able to establish an independent household. However, it also prevents her from seriously looking for employment for exactly the same reasons a previous “Joan” pointed out. Dealing with the impact of a big cheque in one month will take several months of work with one’s Client Representative to reaffirm or re-establish one’s eligibility for the benefit. It becomes easier – at least in the moment – to earn a little bit here and there but never to truly step out into the employment world.

Irena questioned in a very quiet and indirect way whether the purpose of ODSP is truly just to firmly establish that one is disabled. It is a question that is difficult to articulate and easier to ignore. But truly is this young woman disabled? It is a fact that she walks with crutches and moves and talks slowly. It is apparent that she easily defers to more assertive people. But it is also true that she thinks and writes beautifully. If one is an artist, is recognized as an artist, and is capable of establishing an artistic career, where is the disability?

But then again, when has our culture ever recognized the making of art as a genuine economic contribution to our society? Clearly, it creates a more stable life for Irena to rely on a regular ODSP cheque as opposed to struggling for meagre grants and skimpy opportunities to sell her work as is required of artists who do not have the advantage of being born with Cerebral Palsy.

Here is an example of Irena’s writing:

The World Is…

The world is dark…
So dark it hurts
No such thing as true happiness,
We are primal;
Running like hamsters on a wheel of greed
Going nowhere…

We shock ourselves back into life,
Accept conformity,
Condone uniformity,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mind Boggled Again

Well, this is another story related to the Daily Bread Food Bank. I don’t mean to pick on them. This particular food bank is the source of an important resource to me at this time. We are related. But, it’s a very one sided relationship, it seems. I have not yet figured out a way that I can enter into a genuine dialogue with this complex and mysterious organization.

The context for me is that I have been bed ridden for a full month – October to November 3. Because some will be curious let me just say that I have succumbed to a complex set of reactions to medication, etc due to the fact I have been in quite a lot of pain for over a year.

One of the factors which is quite relevant to this story is that stress leads to pain leads to stress. For just over a year I have been learning, as readers of this blog know, to live on the ODSP benefit in a neighbourhood which initially was not of my choosing. This situation has been stressful and so is a factor in my current physical condition.

So, today, feeling a little bit stronger I went off to the food bank. I haven’t been there for over a month and my assistant and I were clearly missed by some of the regulars. That is kind of comforting in itself! I have often found over the years that I usually enjoy hanging out with poor and marginalized people partly cause their quirkiness eases any discomfort I might have about my own and partly because these people are very reliable sources of good information about where the real barriers are and what some of the tricks are.

This particular food bank has undergone a major reorganization in my absence. According to the signs it is intended to be a temporary change of operations. Pardon me, but I have my doubts!

The immediate obvious effect of this reorganization is that all the waiting patrons were crammed into a very tiny area and it would seem that there was only one person available to process the waiting people so that they would get their ticket and be able to move onto the food selection area. The food selection area has become nothing more than a line-up to hand out bags of food as there was no room available to lay out the selections as in the previous manner.

I never actually got to the point where somebody could hand me a couple of bags of food. I actually went to the food bank twice today and left empty handed both times. The first time I went I waited approximately 40 minutes and not even 1 person made it through from the waiting area to the food distribution area. The second time, the waiting line was even longer and I didn’t bother to try to get through.

Now I’m sure you realize that I have the luxury of deciding to not use the food bank this week. I have many friends and a full freezer because last week was my birthday and I was sick and lots and lots of people brought food. Today’s trip was more in an effort to broaden the selection of food available to me as much of what’s in the freezer is sweet stuff – not really suitable to my diabetic diet. Be that as it may I have the privilege of waiting till Friday to find out if the food bank has figured out how to process people more effectively.

My real message here is: “What is the point of processing people, at least under these difficult circumstances”. Everybody’s going to get exactly the same food selection in exactly the same two bags. The food that’s going to be there this week is there already. Out of the hundreds of people who will use this support this week surly not more than one or two would be nuts enough to line up more than once to get double their allotment for this week. What possible purpose can it serve to force dozens of people to wait for hours?

I hope you realize just what sort of people are waiting, and that you can get a sense of just how much stress can build up in this kind of situation. The gentleman who welcomed me to the line-up in the first place has all the physical signs of living with psychosis which is controlled by medication which gives him speech and body tics. Another person down the line is a mother with a 3 year old waiting without even a single toy to play with, surrounded by mainly single men. This is not an ideal situation by anybody’s stretch of the imagination for a young child. Others are among the classically unemployable, who wile away their time either sullenly sitting in silence or talking to each other about how such and such a training program never really led them to employable status, etc, etc.

A naïve observer would perhaps conclude that the main activity of poor people in our society is to wait. My heart aches for the 3 year old who is already becoming well acquainted with this job description.

I’m not actually the huge rabble rouser that I would like to be in this kind of situation. Today it was easy to see that all that was required was for someone to break through the line and start handing out bags to each person. Bag by bag, person by person, the waiting line would have been dispersed in less than 20 minutes with no harm done to anyone, especially the Ontario government. But I didn’t do it and neither did anyone else. We are after all good citizens of Ontario.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Just Something that Ticks Me Right Off!

Okay, so this isn’t a story about ODSP. I have been sick for about a month and it has not been a time when I have been interviewing people about their contributions. Just the same this story is in the same vein and it’s about how contribution is so frequently thwarted by all the tangential screw ups of the service system and the people who are trying to do “good”.

This particular “John” lives in a supported living service near the St. Lawrence Market area of Toronto. I met him approximately a year and a half ago when he first came to a visual arts program designed for people who have very limited use of their bodies and especially people who do not speak. John fits both of these criteria.

Even though John struggles to be understood, using a combination of pointing, grunting, smiling, head nodding, a voice producing machine, and a word book, it is clear that he has a remarkable amount of courage in regards to being out in the public and getting around. On more than one occasion he has arrived by subway and bus even though he was uncertain of the route and the overall trip would take him nearly two hours. He seems to be relatively comfortable getting people’s attention and simply letting them figure out what the problem is and solve it with him. In this way he gets himself from A to B.

Nevertheless John frequently does use Wheeltrans. After all this parallel transport is designed to be able to be booked on a regular basis to go to the same place at the same time each week, giving the user an accessible and reliable means of transportation to his or her choice of participation.

Or so you would think.

Laser Eagles, the art program, used to take place in an Etobicoke Community Health Centre. At the end of the summer we moved to a nearby drop in facility as the community room of the CHC was frequently booked during our time slot.

Now understand this. We are artists. Yet because of our inability to access other facilities usually used by artists – both physical and financial inaccessibility – for six years we have relied on weekly three hour slots booked in health service related rooms to do our painting. Thus our “disability” yet again outweighs our other characteristics. Imagine being an artist and having only three hours a week when you could do your work?

Be that as it may, John, and other artists who use Wheeltrans, have frequently had to wait another two hours for their return bus. The pick up time is 3pm but for the internally motivated, unobvious reasons known only to dispatchers (if even them) John’s bus is never reliable for his return trip. In case you think this is peculiar to John, there have been at least three artists in the last six years who have quit the program because they could not tolerate the unpredictable waits. Just so you really get the picture, some of these artists would be returning to their support service residences during rush hour, which would extend their trip by another hour, which would mean they would arrive home three hours later than expected, which would mean that they would not get their dinner meal. On more than one occasion a Laser Eagle volunteer has gone to feed somebody a meal.

When we moved to the drop in centre John’s bus suddenly became very unreliable again. This is a common tendency of Wheeltrans when you change your drop off and/or pick up address. The trouble is there is nobody around at the drop in centre on a regular basis from 3-5pm. So suddenly John was no longer welcome because the drop in centre cannot take responsibility for waiting with him, neither can they legally leave him alone, although he would be happy to wait by himself.

Now this is something that Laser Eagles can figure out. We’ve done it before. But this is not how the service system approaches a real problem. Rather than finding someone to wait with John it was announced that he should not come to the drop in centre. Fortunately John doesn’t get messages he doesn’t like and he showed up anyway today, and his return bus arrived on time – thank God.

I hope you get my point. When it comes to being labelled disabled there are innumerable barriers to contribution. John has thrived as an artist. Over a very short period of time he has gone from having his “tracker”, (a volunteer who supports the artist to produce his work), do all the brush handling to holding his canvas in his lap and using his brushes in his own hands. He has gone from using only paint-by-number canvases to designing his own scenarios. His current tracker is a young man who is deeply moved by the opportunity to support him to paint and figure out his transportation issues.

I get angry – hot under the collar – when such obvious effort and inspiration is thwarted and undervalued. In the mid seventies the province spent 21 million dollars to create Wheeltrans. It’s been spending millions ever since to keep up a poor and ineffective parallel service. Why can’t John and others like him have a public system that actually works? Is he not a member of the public? John would take the subway if any of the subway stations near the Laser Eagles location were accessible. Why not?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Working Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

First, let me apologize for not blogging for a few weeks. Various excuses apply, but in the name of participatory story telling, I encourage you – the reader – to make up an excuse for my lack that inspires you!

Speaking of readers – it would appear that almost NO ONE is reading this blog as only one person ssshas become a “follower” or made comments on the posts. Well NO ONE!! – I know you are there. A couple of you have sent e-mails or made comments to me in person. It would be helpful if you followed the blog links and signed up as a follower, please. If this blog is seen to have a readership I can link it to some politically effective blog sites, and join in on grassroots efforts to change policy around relief of poverty. Yes, you, the reader, can join with me, the writer, to make a difference!

This story is about another Joan – someone whom I have known for many years and of whom I assumed she was on ODSP. I mean I know she lives in one of those apartments where an agency supplies a personal assistant four or five times a day, she uses a high tech wheelchair somewhat like mine, and that she volunteers regularly in the governance of her apartment building in downtown Toronto.

This week I found out I was wrong. This Joan has lived on a long term disability pension, an insurance related health benefit, for more than a dozen years. As a recipient of these funds she is not eligible for ODSP.

This week she told me her story which I will relate here briefly. Joan is skilled in computer networking and troubleshooting. She learned these skills mainly hands on, but as she was using them years ago to assist friends and to make a little money on the side she eventually was recommended to a large service and advocacy organization and she landed a good job in corporate Ontario.

Now Joan did a fine job and was used and even overused by employees across the company to keep the information system going. However her experience as a worker was mainly unpleasant. She found that her so-called “disability” and not her work performance was constantly the focus of attention. For example, other employees would excuse their absences from their desks by saying that she needed their help when this was blatantly not the case.

Joan found it difficult to get treated as a typical employee. For example supervisors would refuse to give her proper performance evaluations, and over time she found she was passed over for regular bonuses and promotions. One time after renovations she found herself regulated to a cramped cubicle instead of an office. This gave her lack of privacy in the use of her speaker phone and lack of mobility with her wheelchair to interact with others in the workplace. She could no longer perform essential duties adequately. She became depressed and eventually left work on a long term disability income.

Joan’s story might sound exaggerated, but not to me because I have experienced the same sort of corporate cold shoulder myself and have seen two other people get very ill under similar circumstances. Another bunch of stories indeed!

It might seem that having a long term disability pension from a health insurance company is not such a bad deal, but just look at the downsides:
- Joan cannot earn even one penny or she will lose her meagre $1800/month;
- Long term disability DOES NOT cover medications, and dental and equipment costs. Joan had to pay $10,000 from her own savings for her most recent wheelchair;
- Joan is not eligible for a retirement pension so when the long term disability income ends at age 65 she must depend only on CPP and Old Age Security; and,
- Joan must be assessed every two years as still “emotionally disabled” and if she is deemed to have recovered she will lose the income anyway.

The monetary value of her benefit is about $800 more per month than what ODSP would provide, but Joan often wonders if it is really worth it. Her self worth and her bank account are stressed ongoingly by this “benefit” and she often wonders if she is making the right decision to not give it up.

In the meantime Joan volunteers in many different ways and avoids getting paid work even as she locates sources of grant money to fund others to do the work she is already participating in.

Doesn’t it just make you want to smack your head against a wall?


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rewarding Generousity

My next “Fred” is a man that I met on the first day that I moved into this co-op. I’m guessing he is in his late thirties or early forties although I have never asked. At the time he was residing in the apartment across the hall, but now he has returned to living with his mother. His wife lives in my building. Their separation is not due to any lack of affection, but in order to facilitate her support. Yes, that is another story!

It was a bit difficult nailing Fred down to an interview because he is SO busy. When our first appointment was scheduled he postponed due to helping out his brother in some way. Our next missed opportunity found him painting the apartment across the hall – the very one that he moved out of a few months ago. He had been subcontracted by the maintenance department of the co-op to get it ready for a new resident, who is also supported by the same local service agency that serves Fred’s wife. And, yes, you may have gathered that there are many other stories wrapped up in questions about why residents who are supported by service agencies find themselves moving around so much!!!

By the way, Fred was doing this job for cash at about half the rate that a regular painter would charge for a similar job.

Anyway, back to Fred. He told me that he first became an ODSP recipient approximately fifteen years ago when he was working for an auto body shop and experienced “problems” that got him referred to psychiatrists. He is no longer on psychiatrist prescribed drugs but he is still considered to be disabled.

Fred works twelve hours a week for another service agency. He works as a janitor and is paid one dollar an hour. Outside of these twelve hours, he frequently does similar work for the same agency for a similar price. Altogether he works an average of twenty-five hours a week.

I met Fred because he spontaneously offered his assistance when I was moving in. Now, even though he no longer lives in the building, he is a frequent visitor and is seen doing such tasks as gardening, helping people move, and doing odd jobs. He also provides essential support to his wife who has a complex seizure condition. On her not so good days she uses a wheelchair and Fred assists her to go shopping and to accomplish many other necessary chores.

Fred says that ODSP pays his food, his rent and gives him a drug and dental card. He is allowed to “officially” earn $160 a month above his benefit. He stated that this is the reason for why his pay rate is so low.

In summary, Fred, in any given week works as a volunteer and contributes to others in a wide range of ways that include helping people move, being a companion, providing personal assistance, doing maintenance, painting, gardening, counselling and providing information.

Fred would like to get off ODSP although his family and friends advise him that this is too risky. Apparently, his case worker agrees that he should try for regular employment and regular wages. However, no one has ever assisted Fred to write his resume and to get into the job finding world. He continues to wait for this support.

My new friend is a good example of co-operation. I am genuinely sorry that he moved out of the co-op. Not only is he fun to work with but it was a lot easier to keep the social committee going when he was available to put up posters and do odd tasks.

I have offered Fred my assistance in writing his resume!!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where Does the Madness End!?!

This past month I organized two interviews and then waited. As I have said in a previous posting there are so many ways that silence works for people. So I waited nearly two weeks for one interviewee to make a two word edit in her story. I waited nearly as long for the other one to drop by my apartment for ten minutes. He is in my building six days out of seven.

While I was waiting I happened to be on the phone one morning with a woman in her mid-thirties (another Joan – all the women interviewees are going to be Joan!) I have known her well since she was ten. We visit about once a year and talk two or three times a month on the phone.

Joan lives in Montreal, in a group home where she shares a room with another resident who is not in any way a spousal or sexual partner. She prefers this arrangement over others in her recent past because the “house mother” is much more relaxed and the rent is cheaper.

Joan has lived on welfare – the Quebec version of ODSP – for fifteen years. She lives this way because she is on a complex of psychiatrist prescribed medications – at last count 14. She became diabetic about ten years ago so a few more meds have been added to the cocktail. Beyond the $900 she receives for food and rent welfare pays for these prescriptions and for some “training programs” and the transportation to these programs.

I put “training programs” in quotes because Joan has been training on and off for exactly the same sort of job for nearly as long as she has been on welfare. When she is mentally well she works as an assistant in a seniors’ residence. She performed this job more than adequately in one establishment for over five years.

Her tasks are simple, repetitive and absolutely essential – if she didn’t do them a regularly paid employee would be called in. Once or twice a day she sets up the furniture in an activity room, wheels the residents into the room, sits with them while they do exercises in their chairs or play board games, helps serve a light snack, wheels the participants back to their rooms and cleans the room. Joan does this 3 days a week usually for about 2.5 hours a day, and sometimes she will take a 5 hour shift.

Joan performs these simple tasks with a genuine affection for the old people she supports. Her high regard for the elders has won her several acknowledgements at various memorial services from grateful relatives after a resident has died.

Joan provides other social support as well. In her words: “I am there for my friends. I help them out when they don’t feel good. I had to call 911 twice for my friend last month who had taken four days of pills and slit her wrists.”

Similarly to the way things work in Ontario, Joan says that being on the “disability” benefit creates some obstacles for her. She says: “It makes it harder because even if I wanted to work for the people I could lose my welfare.” In such a case she would lose her medical and dental coverage, and have to pay the prohibitive cost of her medication.

Joan has had some private arrangements in the past, providing one-on-one support to an elderly woman for cash. She says: “I want to work for the elderly under the table so I could have more money to buy things like shoes and more tattoos. I would work more than 7 hours a week if allowed, but I’m scared of losing my welfare.”

When Joan is undergoing an episode of hearing voices, anxiety or other disturbance life gets very rough and it is clear why she needs ready access to a stepped-up level of medical and social support. It is perfectly understandable why Joan equates working for money with taking an unnecessary and dangerous risk. In my view I wonder what it would take to create a government funded financial support system that permitted Joan to access medical and other health funding, and even life cost money from time to time, while also participating in the regular economy when she is well.

Ah, but maybe that’s another story.