Sask.’s reopening strategy could present safety issue for workers with disabilities, says consultant

A Saskatchewan woman who is particularly susceptible to viruses says she’s worried the provincial reopening strategy may put people with disabilities in a difficult spot with their employers.

Carla Harris was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2002 and had brain surgery roughly 14 years ago to remove the left portion of her temporal lobe. It never fully developed due to a seizure she had when she was an infant.

Since that brain surgery, she said, she’s at a higher risk of catching viruses, and for viruses to present serious health issues. A simple cold, for example, turned into four months of bronchitis, she said.

Now, she’s a consultant and access analyst who helps businesses serve and work with disabled people. 

She says the Saskatchewan plan to ease restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic presents an issue for people with disabilties: just because a business can reopen, she says, doesn’t mean that everyone is safe to be at that workplace.

Harris said she wants to see some kind of legislation in place that would ensure people with disabilities, or who are immunocompromised, are able to refuse to return to work during the pandemic, but can still maintain their employment as the plan is rolled out.

If those kinds of protection are not legislated, she’s worried employers could “blow off” employees’ concerns. 

“It needs to be in policy,” she said. 

She also wants to see wording that requires employers to find alternative working options, like remote work agreements, or to offer later return dates for workers with disabilities.

She said she feels as though the Saskatchewan Employment Act, under which employees have the right to refuse work if they feel unsafe, does not adequately cover the rights or challenges of disabled workers.

“It is written presuming that everyone has the same physical ability to work at all times,” she said. 

“The act never mentions a plan for protecting the jobs of people who have higher workplace health and safety risks than some of their coworkers.”

Even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she said it might not be easy for those people to have a conversation with their bosses to express their concerns about returning to work.

Harris encourages employees to talk with their employers about their health concerns.

“Do it in writing to protect yourself,” she said.

‘Businesses can learn how to work with us’

Harris noted that for people with or without disabilities alike, there is one positive that could come out of the response to the pandemic.

She said the fact that employers are adapting to find ways to allow people to work from home shows they’re willing to, and capable of, finding solutions that would allow people with disabilities to work in stable environments.

Harris said that’s something she hopes to see more of in the post-COVID world, whatever it may look like.

“Businesses can learn how to work with us and it’s totally doable,” she said. 

“Businesses are doing it right now.”

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