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I have a disability. What are my rights at work if I have special needs?

Ontario's human rights laws say that everyone has the right to be treated equally and not be discriminated against at work.

This means that your employer must do what they can to make things fair for you. This could mean doing things differently for you so that you are treated equally. Some people call this "removing barriers" that discriminate against you in a way that goes against your human rights. The legal word for this is "accommodation".

Examples of accommodation

Your employer might have to:

  • modify or change your work area because you have a disability
  • provide software or equipment that you need because you have a disability
  • let you take a leave of absence to get treatment for an addiction to drugs or alcohol
  • adjust your schedule or your work hours for a period of time while you recover from an injury or get treatment
  • change your job duties to ones that you are able to do

These are all just examples. Accommodation can be different for different people. In each case, it depends on what you need.

If you need accommodation because of human rights, ask for it. Your employer has to try to make things fair for you.

And you have to co-operate with your employer in trying to find and agree on what is reasonable for them to do. It might not be the same as what you asked for.

If you have a union at work, talk to your union representative. The union is usually involved if a union member needs accommodation. Your union and your employer are both responsible for accommodation.

But employers don't have to do things that they can prove will cause them undue hardship. For example, a small company might need more time than a big company to change your work area if:

  • the renovations cost a lot of money, and
  • there is nowhere the company can get funding to help them pay.
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1. Find out if Ontario's laws apply

Most employers in Ontario must follow the Ontario Human Rights Code. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario deals with claims against these employers.

But some industries are covered by federal laws. These are laws made by the Government of Canada and they apply throughout the country. These industries include banks, airlines, some trucking businesses, and broadcasting. The Government of Canada website has a more complete list.

Employers in these industries must follow the Canada Labour Code. The Canadian Human Rights Commission deals with complaints against these employers.

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2. Ask your employer for accommodation

You know best what your needs are. Think about things that could be done to make things fair for you at work. There are some examples listed in the answer above.

To get what you need, you have to explain why you need it. Make your request to your employer in writing.

For example, if you're coming back to work after time off for treatment, you might need some things to be different for you. You might only be able to:

  • do parts of your job
  • do other kinds of work for your employer
  • work flexible hours
  • work fewer hours
  • work from home

You may want to get advice about asking your employer for accommodation. You can contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre for free legal advice and information. For example, they can help you decide:

  • what to say to your employer about your disability
  • what to ask your employer for
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3. Get medical evidence

It's a good idea to give your employer information that supports your request for accommodation. Usually, this means getting a letter from a doctor.

You don't have to tell your employer what your disability is or what your diagnosis is. But your employer needs to know:

  • that you have a disability
  • how it affects your ability to do the essential duties of your job
  • what you need your employer to do

If your employer wants you to get more information from your doctor, ask them to put their questions in writing.

Your employer is not allowed to ask for information that reveals your diagnosis. For example, they can't ask what medication you take. But they can ask if your doctor thinks there are specific accommodations that you need because of side effects of medication that you have to take.

Some employers ask the worker to get a report from a different doctor. This is called an "independent medical examination". They're not supposed to ask for this:

  • as a way of questioning whether you need accommodation
  • to avoid giving you accommodation

They should ask for this only if they need another medical opinion to help figure out what accommodation you need.

If your employer asks for a doctor's letter, they should pay any fees the doctor charges for it.

You may want to get advice about asking your employer for accommodation. You can contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre for free legal advice and information. For example, they can help you decide:

  • what to ask your doctor for
  • what to do if your employer asks for more information or another medical exam
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4. Check to see if you should make a human rights claim

If you think your employer is discriminating against you, you can get free legal advice and information from the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

The Centre can help you figure out:

  • whether to make a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
  • what might help you prove that an employer discriminated against you

The Centre also helps people when they apply to the Tribunal and, in some cases, at the Tribunal.

You can also check out the Centre's online tool Can We Help You? to see if you might be able to make a claim.

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5. Learn more about making a human rights claim

If you think an employer has discriminated against you because you have a disability, you can apply to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The Tribunal can decide if an employer has discriminated against you. You start the process by making an application to the Tribunal.

What the Tribunal can do

If the Tribunal decides that the employer discriminated against you, there are things the Tribunal can order the employer to do.

For example, the Tribunal can order the employer to:

  • pay you money
  • give you the accommodation you need
  • give you your job back
  • change its practices so they follow human rights laws

But they rarely order an employer to give you back your job.

You can ask for money to cover costs that you had or to replace money that you were forced to spend because of what the employer did.

You can also ask for money because of how the employer's actions affected you. When an employer does not respect your human rights, this can hurt you. The Tribunal can order the employer to pay you money for the hurt they caused you. You don't have to show that their actions cost you money.

What to say in your application

In your application, you say:

  • what happened
  • why you think the employer's decision is against your human rights

Time limits

The deadline to apply to the Tribunal is one year from the date you were discriminated against.

If you miss the deadline, you can still apply. But in your application, you need to explain why you're applying late. If you have a good reason, for example, you couldn't apply because you were in the hospital, the Tribunal can decide to let you apply late.

Learn more about applying to the Tribunal in How to complete an Application form to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

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Reviewed: 
September, 2015