Barbara Hall lays out path to a stigma-free Ontario

Posted on June 25, 2014 in Inclusion Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – Ontario Human Rights Commission explains how to accommodate people with mental disabilities
Jun 24 2014.   By: Carol Goar Star Columnist

We’ve come a long way since the days of insane asylums and cruel epithets.

Most Ontarians know it is illegal to discriminate against people with mental disabilities. Most employers, landlords and merchants know they are required by law to accommodate people with addictions and mental disorders.
What they don’t know is how to convert this principle into action. How far are they required to go to accommodate individuals with mental disabilities? How do they balance the needs of a person with a mental disability and those of other workers, tenants or clients? How do they handle an individual who behaves erratically or frightens others? How do they differentiate between a debilitating addiction and a lack of self-control?

We see examples all the time — from the disruption in civic life caused by ’sMayor Rob Ford’s serial binges to the tragic confrontations between “emotionally disturbed persons” and police that keep happening. We may even be part of the problem, lobbying against a group home on a nearby street, for instance.

Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall has thought a lot about these issues. Last week she released a policy manual to help citizens and institutions prevent and deal with this deeply entrenched form of discrimination.

The 109-page document doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to every question. It would be impossible to reduce equitable treatment to a simple formula. But it offers guidance, uses legal casework to show what is expected and highlights real-life examples of accommodation. “I hope this policy will become a tool for change,” Hall said.

Despite her efforts, the leadership of a handful of enlightened politicians and corporate leaders, the advocacy of human rights groups and the brave testimony of people with mental disabilities, ugly stereotypes persist. Almost half of Canadians — 46 per cent according to a 2008 survey done for the Canadian Medical Association — still believe mental illness is used as an excuse for bad behaviour. One in four (27 per cent) said they would be afraid to be around someone with a serious mental illness.

The first point the guidebook makes is that lack of awareness of the human rights code is no excuse for inaction. Neither is the absence of a specific complaint from an individual alleging discrimination. People with mental challenges often suffer in silence rather than risk their job, their housing or their access to essential services. Some fear reprisals if they speak up. “That’s why we took this on: to say to people you do have rights. You can come out and there are remedies,” Hall said.

The second key message is that accommodating people with mental health challenges is not discretionary. It is the law, even if the disability is invisible or episodic. This doesn’t mean organizations have to incur astronomical expenses or impose an onerous burden on their members. It means decision-makers must inquire about accommodation needs, respect the confidentiality of the individual and make a genuine effort to allow him or her full participation in the organization.

The third segment of the policy is a plain-language manual for managers, landlords and service providers. It features initiatives that have worked, attitudes that have impeded progress and responses that have fallen short:
Punishing the perpetrator without addressing the organizational culture that permitted or condoned discrimination is not enough. Decision-makers must take further steps such as education, training and the removal of psychosocial barriers.

Protecting privacy is no excuse for inaction. The needs of individuals with mental disabilities can be accommodated without disclosing sensitive health or personal information.
Dismissing a request for accommodation because an organization lacks the resources to respond is unacceptable. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, the costs must be so substantial they would alter the nature of the enterprise or materially affect its viability.

Refusing to take responsibility for the actions of contractors, temporary workers, even customers is a violation of the human rights code. They fall within the “directing mind” of an organization.
Although there is no legal immunity from allegations of discrimination, an organization’s strongest defence is that it made a reasonable effort to accommodate the individual.

The best way to create a stigma-free environment is to adopt an explicit plan to remove barriers, backed up by a commitment from management and an education program covering all those who fall within an organization’s purview.

Hall doesn’t expect instant success. But she believes Ontario can be a role model in a world that marginalizes people with mental disabilities.
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