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Vernon mom frustrated watching autistic son slip through the cracks

Mitchell Thorp, 25, finds himself unable to access disability benefits after moving from Alberta
Mitchell Thorp (right) and his mother, Kate Black, are desperately trying to navigate a system they feel is set against them. (Contributed)

Kate Black felt the system was failing her autistic son, and while the B.C. government has helped him out of a difficult situation following a Morning Star inquiry, she feels others in a similar position could fall through the cracks.

Black and her son, Mitchell Thorp, 25, moved to Vernon from Alberta in August. After they arrived, they had nothing but trouble getting Thorp Persons With Disability status now that he’s in B.C.

In the past, Thorp had obtained the status in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario – he’s had to move around frequently with his mom, whose job has taken her to four provinces.

But once moving to B.C., they were unable to get disability status for Thorp because they lacked a family doctor, and none of the local walk-in clinics would sign their paperwork.

Black said she and her son tried the Primacy North Okanagan Medical Clinic in the Superstore before it closed permanently Sept. 30. They tried the Sterling Centre clinic with no luck. The same story unfolded at Vernon’s Urgent and Primary Care Centre.

Thorp had even retained his doctor in Alberta, but was told that he needed a B.C. doctor’s signature, so he couldn’t use his doctor to obtain disability benefits. Black even offered to drive the six and a half hours to Calgary to have their doctor fill out the forms, but was told the system doesn’t allow for that.

The issue was complicated by the fact Thorp is scheduled to have major knee surgery in early January after suffering an accident. The surgery requires him to purchase two medical devices – a cold therapy unit and a locking knee brace – totalling about $800, a bill he’ll have to foot himself since he can’t currently access disability benefits.

Paying for the devices is a problem because he’s unable to work. Black says he worked at Safeway prior to moving to Vernon, and worked even after he suffered the knee injury. But Safeway wouldn’t allow him to transfer to a job in Vernon; instead he had to reapply for a job.

However, since the surgery in January will require him to be off work for nine months to a year, he hasn’t had any luck finding a place that will hire him, at the local Safeway or anywhere else.

“We’re trying as hard as we can, we’ve done every rule, we followed everything, and we’re getting nowhere,” said Black.

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (Social Services) denied Thorp’s request for assistance with purchasing the medical devices he’ll need in eight weeks time. He was told to get approved for welfare and was on welfare for about two months, but that only provided him about $1,000 a month, whereas if he had disability status, he would be entitled to more than $1,700 a month.

To make matters worse, the welfare funds were cut off. On Tuesday, Oct. 31, Thorp went to the Social Development and Economic Security Ministry office in Vernon. There, he was told he had missed some paperwork and would not receive welfare until he reapplies for Employment Insurance (EI).

This, too, proved to be a Catch 22.

“They won’t give him welfare until he re-applies for Employment Insurance, but he’s got a letter from Employment Insurance denying him a claim,” said Black, explaining that her son can’t get EI because he had to walk away from his job in Alberta to be with his mother in Vernon, where she and her partner now live.

“But no one in Vernon would hire him because he wears a knee brace, he’s got to have orthopaedic surgery and be off work for nine months to a year.”

Black doesn’t know why she wasn’t contacted by Social Services explaining he would be cut off of welfare – she has power of attorney over her son, who because of his autism has a hard time navigating the system himself.

And because Thorp can’t access disability benefits, he’s left without any income at all.

“That’s where persons with disability status in a sense saves them, because when they’re on disability they don’t get penalized like that,” Black said.

“He’s absolutely destroyed right now.”

Black also pointed out her son is new to the city and has trouble making friends on his own due to autism.

“He’s getting no support services, no mental health services that would be more easily accessible for him, no day programs that could help him right now while he can’t work. He doesn’t get access to any of that,” she said. “And then the impending surgery is stressful for him.”

Black says B.C. needs a better system for people like her son to access disability benefits – she says it was no problem when they applied for those benefits in the past in Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba – especially considering B.C.’s doctor shortage, when only a family doctor can fill out the paperwork.

“In Manitoba, as long as it was in within 30 days of our move, his doctor in Ontario could fill out the forms for Manitoba. Because they know you can’t get a family doctor right away. Let’s be realistic.”

It was particularly frustrating given Thorp’s status isn’t going to change, his mother said.

“We’ve got the previous approvals and what the doctors wrote, because it’s not going to change, his autism and his abilities aren’t going to change at this stage of life.”

She added her son is “such a nice young man” who is high functioning and can work despite having autism, but has the cognitive ability of someone who is about 14 years old and therefore has trouble navigating an unhelpful system.

The Morning Star reached out to the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction for comment on Thorp’s situation in late 2023.

The ministry did not immediately respond to the inquiry. However, since then Black told The Morning Star she had been contacted by the ministry with some good news.

The ministry told Black they would make a policy exemption to allow her son to have his Calgary doctor sign the forms to get him approved for disability status, adding the ministry will expedite the approval process for the assistance he will need for his surgery.

Black said it’s not certain that her son will be approved, but is happy to have “at least gotten that squeaky wheel going.”

Late Thursday, the ministry confirmed it is working directly with Thorp to support him.

A spokesperson for the ministry said people can apply for the Persons with Persistent Multiple Barriers (PPMB) category while they are working on completing their persons with disability application.

“If eligible for PPMB, the person may be eligible for a higher rate and additional supplements,” the spokesperson said.

The PPMB application process is easier than the persons with disability process because a number of different health professionals are able to complete the assessment, including a registered nurse, a chiropractor, occupational therapist or registered clinical counsellor.

Editor’s Note: This story was corrected after having erroneously stated that persons with disability status is required to access services at Independent Living Vernon. Persons with disability status is not required, and Independent Living Vernon can help people regardless of their status. The Morning Star apologizes for the error.

Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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