My sister has worked for a municipal government in the Greater Toronto Area for over 20 years. During that time, she has developed a serious citrus allergy. This allergy causes a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. For my sister, the allergy is life threatening and requires immediate medical treatment.
Because allergies and scent sensitivities are considered a disability under the Ontario Human Rights Code, employers have a duty to accommodate my sister, short of undue hardship.
My sister provided her employer with the necessary medical documentation so that they would understand the seriousness of her allergy and be able to accommodate her. In response, her employer notified others on her floor about the allergy and asked them not to bring anything into the building containing citrus.
In the same building where my sister works, there is an employee with an allergy to bananas. To accommodate this employee, signs are posted throughout the building reminding employees and visitors alike not to bring bananas into the building. This is typically the minimum that an employer would do to protect employees with scent sensitivities or allergies.
So, while the employer posted signs on each floor reminding people not to bring bananas into the building, the organization would not post signs reminding people not to bring citrus to work—not even signs on the floor where my sister works.
Although people on her floor know about her allergy and were asked not to bring in anything with citrus, people have continued doing so. They drink teas with citrus and bring them to meetings. They bring oranges to work and eat them at their desks. The cleaners use cleaning solutions containing citrus. My sister has even been taken out of the building by ambulance four times because of her allergic reaction to the mere scent of citrus in her workplace. The last time it happened, her manager told her to stay home because “there is nothing more we can do for you.” Despite the obvious risk this allergy poses to my sister’s life, the employer has refused to post signs notifying everyone working in the building not to bring citrus to work.
There is only one difference between the employee with the banana allergy and my sister: that person is White, and my sister is Black. This is how racism and ableism interact. While the employer managed to put up signs for a White employee with a fruit allergy, that turned out to be too much effort for a Black employee. In fact, my sister’s employer would rather let her to die than put these simple measures in place—the very same measures they have already implemented for another employee.
This expression of racism is something we see frequently when we conduct Employment Equity Audits. In some organizations, White employees have described receiving accommodation for a disability (e.g., computer equipment, time off for medical procedures) or family responsibilities (e.g., time off to care for a dying family member, time off to accompany a family member to a medical appointment). Yet, racialized employees have shared with us that they were unable to get the same accommodations. White employees are given the support they need, while racialized employees face suspicion and are considered an inconvenience.
The result is the systemic undermining of racialized people with disabilities. When racialized people don’t receive the accommodation they need to be able to perform their best at work, they are routinely fired for performance issues. They, and their race, are seen as the issue, not the racist ableism that they experience at work.
For this reason, when examining ableism and how it impacts the work experiences of employees with disabilities, employers need to recognize that not all people with disabilities have the same experience—as I’ve shown here, racism interplays with ableism to further negatively impact the experiences of racialized people with disabilities.
Following a strongly worded letter that I wrote on my sister’s behalf, she has since returned to work and the appropriate accommodations put in place. It seems that her employer needed a reminder of their legal duty to provide accommodation for my sister’s disability, and that failure to provide that accommodation, because of her race, was an additional violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.