Digitizing Social Assistance: How Technological Barriers are Impacting Our Most Vulnerable

Digitizing Social Assistance: How Technological Barriers are Impacting Our Most Vulnerable

Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer, IP Innovation Clinic Fellow, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Many people have voiced their concerns about the abysmally low rates for ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) and OW (Ontario Works). In response, Ontario NDP MPPs have taken it upon themselves to conduct a “two-week social assistance diet” to better understand the challenges that some of Ontario’s most vulnerable residents face. However, in addition to the low rates, some social assistance applicants and recipients are facing technological hurdles due to social assistance renewal or “modernization,” an initiative led by the province to promote employment and independence for those on social assistance.  

The rationale for change is that our social assistance systems’ processes are “too bureaucratic, too paper-heavy" and “focused on enforcement and technical aspects” rather than on the activities that would actually contribute to independence for those relying on social assistance. To tackle these issues, modernization proposes “more digital and self-serve options” to allow for faster decision making and a more streamlined experience for those applying to or on social assistance. As encouraging as this sounds, digitization of social assistance services has unfortunately left many behind.

Lower income and less likely to own computers

Persons with disabilities tend to have lower incomes than persons without a disability, often making costs for digital devices or connectivity services burdensome. According to a Pew Research Centre study of 1502 US adults, those with a disability were less likely to own a desktop or laptop computer than those without a disability. “Some people with low incomes have inconsistent access to internet or phone. When there’s an emphasis on digitized services, some folks won’t be able to access the benefits and the services that they are entitled to,” said Sara Ageorlo, a staff lawyer at Willowdale Community Legal Services. Sara mainly assists clients with their social assistance matters and observes the technological challenges they face on a regular basis. 

She exclaimed that some clients also find it challenging to set up their online account on MyBenefits, an online service that allows OSDP and OW recipients to check payments and communicate with their caseworkers. Additionally, the emphasis on applying online negatively affects newcomers, who often face a language barrier and are unaware of a lot of the free services available to assist them. With the push toward digitization, more clients may feel helpless because they believe there is no one to ask questions to or to tell them whether they are submitting the right information.

“We’re talking about people with low income, they’re busy to make ends meet … it should be easier for folks in those positions.”

Encouraging access to alternatives and education

Sara strongly believes that individuals who can’t access digital services should have alternatives, with a particular emphasis on obvious alternatives. Alternative options should not have to be searched for – they should be made obvious, instead of being hidden in separate links or tabs. Moreover, online applications should also avoid discouraging applicants from applying for benefits they may be entitled to – this is the case when applicants see pop-up messages indicating their ineligibility after choosing an option on a drop-down menu. To ensure user friendliness, these digital services should also be developed in consultation with those who will be using them. Moreover, there must be an emphasis on workshops that will introduce applicants to this new platform and help with the integration process. Government programs that recognize the digital literacy issue within specific communities, such as the Digital Literacy Exchange Program, which will invest $17.6 million to promote digital literacy skills among Canadians who face barriers to participating in the digital economy, represent a crucial step towards closing in on the digital divide between those with and without disabilities.