Kitchener Waterloo Record

Disabled dad faces difficult choice

To continue receiving benefits, he may have to leave job he loves

Monday January 6, 2003
Kitchener Waterloo Record

John Berry, 42, with his sons (left to right) Gregory, Steven and John Jr. in their rented farmhouse near the village of Bright.
BRIGHT, ONT. -- John Berry's fierce, protective love for his three sons, and his determination to provide a stable home for them has seen him through some bad times.

But the 42-year-old single dad, a wheelchair user since a 1995 motorcycle accident left him a paraplegic, may now have to swallow his pride to deal with a situation that could otherwise defeat him.

Despite his disability, Berry works as he has done most of his life, as an auto mechanic. Now, his part-time pay exceeds a permitted amount under the Canada Pension Plan disability legislation. He is about to lose that benefit and hates the alternative, which is to go on welfare.

The 1990s were disruptive for the family. There was Berry's devastating accident, a six-month stay in hospital, plus as much rehabilitation therapy as his physical condition could benefit from.

There were also ongoing child-access issues and a divorce. Berry wanted to start a new life. He rented a small farmhouse near Bright, about 20 km southwest of Kitchener, for $720 a month, and obtained a part-time job as a mechanic working about 15 hours a week at $19 an hour.

He applied for custody of his sons, whose mother has remarried and moved out West.

Although he can't use his legs, Berry has upper body mobility. His employer, Bob Bricker of Countryside Automotive in Baden, has been "amazing," Berry said in an interview.

Bricker has provided the constant supervision and assistance Berry needs to do his job.

Last year Berry got full legal custody of his sons, John Jr., 15, and twins Greg and Steven, 13. His Canada Pension Plan disability benefit went up from about $900 to $1,370 a month.

But it turns out he earned too much, more than $14,000 last year before taxes, to qualify for the federal disability pension. The maximum he can earn without losing the pension is $3,900 a year. In October he received a letter from Human Resources Development Canada saying his benefits would stop as of Dec. 31, 2002.

In desperation, Berry wrote a letter explaining his situation. The federal agency extended his payments to the end of February. In a letter, service delivery agent Dianna Lajeunesse explained that Canada Pension Plan benefits are only granted to people "who have a severe and prolonged disability and who are unable to do any type of work on a regular basis."

Berry is aware of the options. He could apply to go on the Ontario Disability Support Program which would, at least, provide dental and drug benefits for him and his boys -- something the family currently doesn't have.

But Berry is proud and feels that would be akin to taking welfare, which he finds abhorrent. He adapted his own second-hand truck with hand controls. As well, he picks up used wheelchairs and fixes them -- the Canada Pension Plan only pays for one every five years -- so that he has one for each level of his house, one for the truck and one at his workplace. "I go through a wheelchair a year," he said.

Worst of all, welfare may still restrict him from working as much as he can for a living, he said.

"I've never been out of work in my life. I can't sit at home and do nothing, I'll go insane."

He wonders why the Canada Pension Plan doesn't simply calculate a disability amount after his earnings -- granting him a benefit which, added to his mechanic's pay, would be enough to support his family.

But, under the law, that's not how the federal program works, said Ron Contaridi, a manager at Human Resources Development Canada Kitchener office.

"The CPP disability plan is set up for people who can't work at all. It's pretty black and white," Contaridi said in an interview.

"This gentleman is caught between two legislations. The province works from the other end, with earnings being supplemented by benefits."

Looking out the window of his modest home, at his handsome sons who hover protectively, Berry chokes back tears.

"This past Christmas was the first time in 10 years the boys and I were together. There was no money for gifts, but we barbecued two small turkeys. I don't want a lot of money, just enough to put food in my little guys' mouths and clothes on their backs."

©Kitchener-Waterloo Record 2000