When is disability accommodation not accommodation?

In Ontario under Human Rights legislation, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), I can’t be discriminated against due to my disabilities. However, there is this wonderful phrase ‘undue hardship’ that comes into play when requesting disability accommodation.

Recently an Ontario school board declared that it would be an ‘undue hardship’ to accommodate a child’s service dog, in the child’s classroom, that is trained to help the child with their autism. Many people disagree and the case continues.

However, the issue of ‘undue hardship’ is very complex as this case example demonstrates well. The key message in this example that in an employer/employee situation you must engage in the process and the solution may not be perfect, and doesn’t have to be.

I’m currently engaged in this process with my employer and will give them all credit. They have come up with a transition plan that works. It takes into account my limitations (that I can’t be around scents, citrus or latex at all and currently have limited stamina) while also giving everybody time to try to work out a longer term solution to the issues concerned.

In my case my deafness is complicating issues. In most cases, if somebody had to work from home they could teleconference in to meetings and participate in that way. Unfortunately even with my highly amplified phones I still need additional cues – faces. So we’re looking at ways of setting up video conferencing through Skype, or similar, that will be easy to use and low to no cost.

My employer is working hard at accommodating me but the issue of undue hardship is still real. The problem is that it’s poorly defined. Realistically it’s pretty easy to state that expecting an entire university, that also houses a gym with public membership, to go citrus, latex and scent free would be an undue hardship.

Yet some schools do go entirely peanut free to accommodate children with anaphylaxis.

So where is the line drawn?

Is it because my primary allergen (citrus) is so unique and also so prevalent in everything that makes it just unrealistic to accommodate? I’ll admit, I didn’t expect my employer to even try accommodating my anaphylaxis in terms of making the campus safe, having recently seen how hard it was for a hospital to do so.

The next issue is the practicality of accommodation. It’s one thing to say that we can use Skype or similar to video-conference meetings so that I can attend and participate, but doing so is another issue.

I happen to know that this works for me as I use a similar product, WebEx with my colleagues at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) frequently. However, NOSM is a distributed program. They video-conference classes and meetings on a daily basis. It is their way of doing business. So my needing to see faces isn’t an issue; they’re provided for me for the most part anyway. Sometimes I have difficulties with people just teleconferencing in and then it depends on the chair of the meeting. In many cases, they’re excellent and repeat what’s been said for everybody to hear anyway so I can follow the repeat.

So setting aside my employer for a moment, who are doing an incredible job of working with me, my problem comes when I ask for accommodation in other contexts. Not only do I have to explain my disabilities in at least general detail (which I shouldn’t have to), and ask for what I need but often they then expect me to resolve the issue myself.

Let’s be clear – if I could resolve the issue myself I would have already done so. When I found myself unable to talk for those NOSM meetings I contacted a colleague and we texted during the meeting and they voiced my thoughts for me as needed. It was very helpful when they needed a committee vote for example; rather than my having to give apologies.

I think it all comes down to the way that people respond. I’m learning to ask for accommodation, and in fact to even demand it when necessary such as that the majority of my health care providers are now using email to schedule appointments with me rather than insisting on using the telephone. A win!

What’s hard to deal with though is when the request for accommodation isn’t really a hardship; in fact the accommodation takes minimal effort for the person who needs to provide it but they act as so it’s an unbearable amount of extra work.

Those people make my life hard. It’s hard not to feel like a burden when that’s the reaction. It’s hard not to want to just give up and stop fighting. I’m already fighting my own body each and every day. Please don’t make me have to fight you too just to get you to treat me with a little compassion.

So when is disability accommodation not accommodation? When it’s done without compassion and professionalism.

I don’t want or need your pity.

I do need you to listen to me and to work with me. I have solutions, I know what works for me best and what would have least impact on you, or others.

Disability accommodation is not about placing undue hardship on the able, it’s about providing equity and liberation for those already fighting wars you have no idea even exist.

Please remember to be compassionate whenever anybody requests  an accommodation. You have no idea how hard that was for most of us to even ask for!

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