Canada Post fails to deliver for autistic worker

Company’s lack of knowledge on autism led to discrimination and harassment of autistic letter carrier, says human rights tribunal

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has found an autisticCanada Post employee suffered harassment and discrimination based on her disability and wasn’t accommodated.

Michelle Dawson was hired by Canada Post in December 1988. She had a good work record without any disciplinary issues over her 15-year career as a letter carrier. The corporation wasn’t aware Dawson was autistic until 1999, at which point she asked for some accommodation.

Canada Post ensured Dawson’s delivery route was kept largely the same, since autistic people have trouble dealing with changes. She was also allowed to start work before other carriers, sort letters differently and have a special mail rack that she was able to work with more effectively.

Co-workers worried about safety

After her condition came to light, some other Canada Post employees went to management and expressed concerns for their safety. Dawson had come to work on several occasions with self-inflicted wounds and they were concerned she might become violent at work. However, she had come to work with wounds before her condition became known without anyone saying anything about it.

Dawson was surprised to find out her colleagues thought she was a threat to their safety since self-injury is a way autistic people deal with stress. She said it only happened occasionally at home, never at work, and there would be long stretches where she didn’t do it.

Canada Post sent someone from the employees’ assistance plan (EAP) provider to meet with employees to reassure them Dawson wasn’t a threat. After meeting with employees, the provider wrote a report with observations and recommendations and sent it to Canada Post. The report ended up in Dawson’s file and the company’s medical services provider also sent someone to reassure employees. Dawson didn’t learn of the report until November 2000 and was angry the information had been circulated within the corporation.

Canada Post apologized for the report and reached a settlement with Dawson in which it would donate money to a charity and issue a formal apology including a statement she was not violent. She explained the settlement and the nature of her condition to co-workers, after which Dawson said her colleagues saw her in a more positive light and there were no further problems with them.

However, Dawson continued to experience problems with Canada Post management. In addition to the report the EAP provider filed, she said the corporation continued to make its own decisions regarding her condition without being informed. The corporation didn’t respond to her requests for updates on her settlement payment and assigned one person to deal with her since others grew tired of answering her questions. She said autistic people require clear and detailed information to process and Canada Post’s actions hurt her feelings and treated her as a “non-person.” This treatment aggravated her autism and her need for stability and clarity. Ambiguity, spontaneity and perceived negativity from colleagues can cause withdrawal and psychological problems in autistic people, Dawson said.

On Jan. 14, 2002, Canada Post hired Dawson’s former psychologist to make a presentation on autism to national officials. No autistic people were consulted or invited to the presentation. The psychologist gave “a relentlessly negative picture” of autistic people, emphasizing negative traits and giving instructions on how to deal with Dawson. Dawson tried to find out what she did wrong and said she was told the problem was that she was different. She was told by multiple people in management that she was violent, had performed self-mutilation at work and her autism was the problem.

After Dawson learned of the Jan. 14 meeting, she declared a harassment-based work accident and took time off for a “stress-related adjustment reaction.” Canada Post asked her to undergo a psychological assessment by a doctor who wasn’t an autism expert but rather an expert on violent behaviour. Dawson said going through that would be “devastating” to an autistic person.

Dawson filed a human rights complaint, accusing Canada Post of discriminating against her and retaliating against her for her original complaint. The corporation’s demands she see a medical expert rather than her own doctor after her work accident claim constituted further harassment, she said.

Management’s comments were discriminatory

The tribunal found the comments of Canada Post management saying she was violent and a problem established a prima facie case of discrimination.

“(The remarks) brand Ms. Dawson as a violent person in relation to her disability, a perception which is totally, given the evidence, gratuitous,” the tribunal said.

However, the tribunal did not find the presentation from Dawson’s former psychologist contributed to the discrimination, though it didn’t help the situation. Canada Post was looking for expertise to better understand Dawson and there was no indication it set up the meeting with the intention of discriminating or retaliating against her. The report wasn’t presented as evidence so the tribunal declined to make a finding on it.

The tribunal found Canada Post’s demands to see its own doctor created a hostile work environment and violated Dawson’s dignity. Her disability was a factor in the way she was treated and, though not retaliation, was harassment.

“The chain of events shows clearly a total lack of knowledge and understanding by Canada Post management of autism and how autistic individuals process information,” the tribunal said.

The tribunal ordered Canada Post to work with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to modify its discrimination and harassment policies; conduct workplace accommodation and sensitivity training for managers and staff; and follow any other advice from the commission about its treatment of employees with disabilities, especially autism. See Dawson v. Canada Post Corporation, 2008 CHRT 41 (Can. Human Rights Trib.).

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