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Disability rights in Canada: Accommodating workers with nonvisible disability
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Disability rights in Canada: Accommodating workers with nonvisible disability

One in five Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 has at least one disability, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability. That’s about 4 million adults who experience limitations, many of which are not immediately apparent to others.

Accommodating workers with nonvisible disabilities is a legal requirement, but it’s also good business practice. Most accommodations are not costly and lead to a positive return on investment with a productive, committed and engaged employee.

Nonvisible disabilities cover a range of limitations from chronic pain to cognitive, neurological and mental conditions. They include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical disorders such as fibromyalgia and diabetes. These disabilities are severe enough to limit daily activities, including the ability to work. Workers may be reluctant to reach out, fearing they’ll be discriminated against or stigmatized.

At the federal level, discrimination is prohibited based on 13 grounds identified in Section 2 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, including genetic characteristics and disability. The provinces and territories have their own laws for conditions not federally regulated.

Employers have a duty to accommodate (case-by-case) employees who fall into these groups up to the point of undue hardship, taking into account health, safety and cost. If an employer does not know about an employee’s disability, the duty to accommodate does not apply. However, supporting workers with nonvisible disabilities makes good business sense. It helps reduce absenteeism, turnover, presenteeism and long-term disability rates, as well as other costs.

Planning for accommodation or a return to work resulting from nonvisible disabilities is based on similar guiding principles that apply to a physical injury. Focus on the functional abilities of the worker, not the symptoms of the injury or illness, or the causes.

When planning modifications to work or a return to work:

  • consider recommendations from treating professionals;
  • begin with tasks the employee agrees would be easiest to accomplish;
  • gradually increase working hours over a period of time;
  • allow flexible scheduling to attend medical appointments; and
  • consider employee energy levels at various times of the day and schedule work accordingly.

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