Mentally ill endure chronic discrimination

TheStar.com – opinions/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Jan 05 2011.    By Carol Goar Editorial Board

Canada is loaded with equality laws, human rights codes, commissions and tribunals. If legal safeguards were enough to protect people with mental illness from discrimination, we’d be in great shape.

We have a Charter of Rights that states clearly that “every individual has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination and in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

We have a Canadian Mental Health Commission that is guided by the principle that “people living with mental illness have the right to be treated with the same dignity and respect as we accord everyone struggling to recover from any form of illness.”

We have an Ontario Human Rights Code that requires every employer, union, landlord or service provider (from a hospital to a movie theatre) to accommodate the needs of persons with physical and mental disabilities.

We have an Ontario Human Rights Commission and a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario mandated to resolve complaints about discriminatory treatment and tackle the systemic barriers that hold people with disabilities back.

Yet people with mental illness continue to be rejected by landlords; excluded from stores, restaurants, schools and gathering places, and forced to conform to workplace procedures that aggravate their condition.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the human rights tribunal received 1,853 applications for hearings into allegations of discrimination on the basis of disability (it doesn’t have separate categories for mental and physical disability). That constituted 52.2 per cent of all the applications it received, covering everything from race to sexual orientation.

So far this fiscal year — which ends on March 31 — it has received 1,709 complaints of discrimination on the grounds of disability; 52.6 per cent of its workload.

Looking beyond the official statistics, there is abundant evidence in the courts, in emergency rooms and prisons that people are misjudged, hospitalized and punished at a vastly disproportionate rate. In fact, the Ontario Human Rights Commission highlighted the issue in its 2009-10 annual report. “Mental illness is a hidden disability,” it said. “In workplaces, housing or services, where the need to accommodate people with physical disabilities is understood, there is often reluctance or even refusal to accommodate people with mental health disabilities.”

Chief commissioner Barbara Hall wants to know why. And she wants to develop policies that address the real-life experiences of people with mental health disabilities.

For the past month and a half, the commission has been collecting personal stories from individuals who have faced discrimination in finding or keeping a place to live; finding or keeping a job; getting services such as social assistance, education or health care; and having access to shops and restaurants because of a mental disorder.

It intends to use what it learns to identify systemic problems, to set standards and to explain to employers and landlords in clear, specific terms — with examples — how they are required to treat Ontarians with mental disabilities.

Some managers, for instance, appear unaware that allowing employees to make hurtful jokes at the expense of a co-worker with depression is prohibited under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Some business owners are unsure how far they have to go to accommodate people with mental disabilities. At minimum, the commission will offer them guidance.

But there is a more optimistic scenario. If Health Minister Deb Matthews delivers on her pledge to produce a 10-year plan to overhaul Ontario’s mental health system this spring and Hall releases her human rights mental health strategy, the 2.6 million Ontarians with mental disabilities may finally begin to see progress in 2011.

(The survey, which runs till Feb. 28, is available at www.ohrc.on.ca.)

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