James Hughes has impaired mobility and uses a walker. During the federal election in 2008, he arrived at his polling station but a long flight of stairs blocked access to the voting booth. There was no ramp in sight. Determined to vote, Hughes went down the stairs on the seat of his pants.
This situation was one of the 372 complaints related to disabilities the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) received last year, according to its 2010 annual report. The commission received a total of 853 complaints last year and 44 per cent — up from 38 per cent in 2009 — were related to disabilities, more than any other ground in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“It’s not surprising because people with disabilities continue to encounter barriers in Canadian society and many employers still fail to provide the accommodations that are necessary for people with disabilities to work and contribute to their full potential,” said David Gollob, director of communications at the CHRC in Ottawa.
The majority of disability complaints concerned physical disabilities (about 70 per cent), with the remainder related to mental health, found the report. Physical accessibility barriers, as in Hughes’ case, are common complaints since most buildings are older and have inaccessible areas, said Jennifer Miller, principal at Accessibility Consultants and Trainers in Burlington, Ont.
“All it takes is one step or narrow entranceway to prevent someone using a wheelchair or scooter to get into that building or that space and accessing all of the opportunities in there,” she said.
Inaccessible doorways, washrooms and workstations are the most common physical accessibility issues, said Miller.
In Ontario, organizations that provide goods or services to the public or a third party are required to have physically accessible workplaces as per the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The customer service standard comes into effect Jan. 1, 2012, for the private sector (it is already effective for the public sector). This standard may be the first of its kind in the country but similar legislation is likely to follow in other jurisdictions, said Miller.
“Other provinces are paying close attention to the AODA,” she said. “And certain other governments and organizations are expecting some sort of accessibility legislation in their province, but it’s very difficult to say when that’s going to happen.”
Under AODA, an organization could be fined up to $100,000 per day or part of a day that an offence occurs, and directors and officers could be fined up to $50,000.
Many disabilities occur as a result of an injury that may prevent an employee from completing his usual job tasks. Another common complaint involves employers that fail to provide accommodation for the tasks and job requirements of an employee with a disability, said Gollob.
“(Employees) may be unable to do the full range of functions that they used to so they require modification of duties,” he said. “We get a lot of complaints dealing with denial or delay in accommodating employees in these circumstances.”
Policy should be inclusive, prevent discrimination
To prevent a complaint, the commission outlines best practices for developing inclusive and non-discriminatory organizational policies in its annual report.
First, a policy should be established with the best effort to be inclusive and prevent discrimination of all kinds.
Second, employers should test the policy to determine if it treats certain people differently and adversely. Employers should examine the workplace practices affected by the policy, gather the appropriate information and analyze it to determine if the policy is actually discriminatory, said Gollob.
Third, employers should adjust the policy to eliminate or mitigate any discrimination. At this step, employers should practise “consultation and conversation,” he said.
“We very often encourage people to talk to each other as an immediate step to resolve complaints,” said Gollob. “There’s abundant research to show many complaints and issues can be resolved through conversation.”
Employers need to assess whether a disability requires permanent alternate placement, a change of duties or other accommodations and the only way to know this is to involve the employee, said Shelly Ptolemy, president of Ptolemy & Associates in Calgary.
“Employers are not fully aware of the requirement and need for employees to be actively participating in the process,” said Ptolemy. “Employees need to actively communicate regarding the nature of the restriction and participate in the process of accommodating their own restrictions.”
And, lastly, employers must continue to monitor policies for discrimination. Issues may still arise once a policy is in place, so ongoing monitoring and analysis are necessary, found the report.
To avoid legal issues with an “astronomically high financial impact,” said Ptolemy, employers need to take the accommodation of disabilities seriously and follow their obligation to accommodate under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“This particular area of human rights is an evolving arena,” she said. “We need to be really cognizant that it’s changing all the time… Employers need to be up on their case law and on what’s happening with benchmarking as it relates to their own industry — what are their peers doing?”
Having a culture that recognizes accessibility benefits everyone, said Miller. When employees see their organization welcoming people with disabilities, it impacts morale, increases respect and fosters trust, she said.
What’s more, having a proactive and positive approach to accommodation encourages diversity in the workplace, which makes good business sense, said Gollob.
“Employees from diverse backgrounds, including disabled employees, are able to make extraordinary contributions to the success of their companies,” he said. “Having a diverse workforce leads to a greater competitive advantage.”
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