Ontario’s disability failure: wheelchairs.

I have… let’s call it second-hand experience with how Ontario handles wheelchair purchase and repairs. Not for me, but for someone I was–at the time–fairly close to (we’ve gone separate ways since and are both probably better for it). The TL; DR version is they don’t, at least not very well.

Sure, a pandemic probably doesn’t help the situation, but this predates Covid by a long shot.

It was 4 a.m. on Boxing Day and Shawn Brush was stuck.

He was trying to watch Christmas movies when his electric wheelchair broke again. This time, it froze in a tilted position. The 52-year-old Burlington, Ont., man was trapped.

“I couldn’t get in or out,” he said. “My phone was on my bed. I managed to get into the bedroom. I drove in backward, and was able to get halfway out of the chair and call the fire department.”

Brush has been waiting two years for a new chair, and cites a time-consuming bureaucratic process that slows down people who need assistive devices. He says he’s speaking out for others in his position.

“There’s all kinds of people going through this,” he said, and “there’s not one person I can blame.”

He’s right, and while I’d love to get pissed at ODSP for their part in it, the truth is they only have one part in it–and I have gotten pissed about it. Purchasing takes forever. Repairing takes forever. Getting assessed takes forever. And getting people to coordinate takes forever.

Assistive Devices Program (ADP), which helps people pay for wheelchairs and other devices.

He said he generally has to replace it every five years. By 2020, Brush said, it had broken down multiple times.

He also said he has had months-long waits for repairs.

For example, in 2018, it took him from May to October to get the front wheels of the electrical wheelchair replaced, so he was without it for much of that time and had to use alternatives, like a manual wheelchair.

ADP is a beast to deal with even for people who don’t need anything overly spectacular. I’m not a wheelchair user, in fact my only mobility aid you can’t exactly get through ADP, but you could not possibly pay me enough to go through one of their processes. That people in wheelchairs don’t have that option has got to be the leading cause of mental breakdowns.

ODSP isn’t entirely innocent in this, however. Repairs, like those above? ODSP pays for that. Eventually. How long eventually is, though, is anyone’s guess. In this poor shmuck’s case, eventually turned out to be 5 months. That’s 5 months where his independence was reduced because ODSP’s asleep at the switch. And places very often won’t even look at you if they don’t have approval from ODSP (one company will make exceptions, depending on the person doing the looking–at least in Ottawa), because they know ODSP can be for freaking ever, but not very often and you never know when you make the call. So you call the wheelchair place, you tell them what’s broken, they take a look and see how bad it is/if it’s going to require a thing be replaced, then you sit and wait while the wheelchair people and ODSP go back and forth.

Ontario likes to think of itself as friendly to the disabled–whether or not the current government’s in fact an ableist pile. The reality, though, is Ontario is a hot mess if you’re disabled. It’s manageable if either 1: you only have one disability or 2: your disability(ies) don’t end up being too incredibly inconvenient. But the farther along the disability spectrum you are, the harder Ontario fails. And most of it could be avoided if they’d just, you know… listen to disabled people.

Tracy Odell, president of Citizens With Disabilities Ontario, said she and others have dealt with long waits too. To get approval for new seating for her electric wheelchair, she needed a physiotherapist to agree it was needed.

“Most people in my position, we know what we need. You don’t need someone to tell you you’ve outgrown your shoe,” Odell said.

She waited about six months before getting authorization, but still hasn’t heard if they have the part needed to make the fix.

Stop failing, Ontario. You’re driving me to drink and you’re not even failing me–well, anymore.

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