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Constructive Engagement: Coalition for Change to the Disability Gifts and Assets Limits

Context

Individuals with disabilities must confront myriad challenges in their daily lives. Until recently, individuals receiving benefits through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) have also had to contend with strict gift and asset limits – i.e. the amount of money they are able to hold in their own names – making it difficult for them to access funds, accumulate earnings from employment or receive financial gifts from friends and family. These restrictions lock many ODSP recipients into incomes considerably below the poverty line, exacerbating the already challenging circumstances that many of these individuals face, particularly when large or unexpected expenses may arise.

In June 2016, Innoweave was approached by the Coalition for Change to the Disability Gifts and Assets Limits to access Constructive Engagement coaching support which could help them address this barrier.

The Coalition asked the Government of Ontario to enact a regulatory amendment to the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997 that would increase the asset limit for recipients from $5,000 to $100,000 for a single recipient and remove the $6,000 per annum limit on voluntary gifts and payments.

This engagement process, assisted by coach Sean Moore, was a success. Changes were announced in the April 2017 Ontario Budget: The asset limits were raised to $40,000 for a single recipient and the previous $6,000 per annum ceiling was raised to $10,000 per annum on voluntary gifts and payments.

Take a look below to explore how the Coalition achieved this result through its work with Innoweave’s Constructive Engagement module.

Strategic Inquiry and Relationship Building

The Coalition began working with coach Sean Moore to design and create a plan of how and when to work on the engagement process.

They began by identifying major stakeholder targets through a “mapping” exercise. They were able to identify key community, influencers and organizations involved in anti-poverty, disability and mental health advocacy, in particular, organizations that work in Ontario.  They created a website and used social media to attract attention, inform and gain support for the cause among a broad range of stakeholders. Ultimately, the Coalition had dozens of community influencers, self-advocates and family members as well as 53 disability, poverty, mental health and other community organizations sign on as supporters.

Within the Government of Ontario, the Coalition (which is based primarily out of Ottawa) identified, and worked with supporters inside and outside the targeted Ministry of Community and Social Services, as well as the offices of two local MPPs. The Coalition worked hard at establishing and maintaining these relationships, as they were vital sources of information, insight and advice.

Throughout this work, the Coalition listened to how government stakeholders viewed the issue, and sought input on how to best position their request for success. Through this engagement they gained the support of elected officials, policy advisors and the necessary public service leaders.

Value of Coaching

Coalition leader Helen Ries noted that “[c]oaching helped me, as leader, to understand how to work best with policy makers to ask for specific changes. Through coaching I learned how to define the ask based on our understanding of the political and public-policy ecosystem surrounding the issue within the government and among key stakeholder groups and to reflect this understanding in a clear briefing note for respondents in a Strategic Inquiry process”.

Helen also points out that “I learned to connect in a way that enabled me to understand the issues from the perspective of policy makers and advisors in government as well as that of other stakeholders. This was key in ultimately gaining their support for our proposition”.

“It is important to be a solutions-based advocate, bringing well-researched ideas and solutions to policymakers as a prepared package.”

In reflecting on the process, Helen noted that “[t]he most important insight I have gained from Innoweave is how to understand and work with officials in government, understanding the issues, constraints, barriers and opportunities facing policymakers”.

The Coalition also learned how important it is to present a proposition to government in a form that policy advisors can use (e.g. well written briefing notes, policy proposals, backgrounders) with appropriate data and other evidence and a compelling “narrative” based on what they knew government needs to know and appreciate.

“With the right process, everyday citizens such as myself can have a huge impact on important issues like poverty relief in our country.”

The Path Forward

The focus now is on maintaining this approach of partnership and collaboration as the issue of poverty reduction and support for those with disabilities will continue to unfold in the years ahead.

The Government of Ontario will be monitoring the impact of the changes they have made, and the government’s own Income Security Reform Working Group is set to launch their own series of recommendations and changes. It is possible that new learnings from these preliminary steps will yield further changes and improvements to the ODSP limits on gifts and assets in the future.

Helen and other members of the Coalition are continuing to make change through other avenues, such as the potential Guaranteed Annual Income policy area, and are using the skills gained during their first Constructive Engagement exercise to advance this vital work.