Disability Discrimination: Everything Canadian Employers Need to Know

  • Discrimination
Olivia Cicchini

Olivia Cicchini, Employment Law Expert

(Last updated )

Disability continues to be the most frequently cited ground of discrimination received by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

In 2017, Statistics Canada found that 22% of Canadians (6.2 million), had one or more disabilities. Another report by Statistics Canada found that 12% of those with disabilities had been refused a job because of their condition in the last five years.

Disability discrimination is a significant issue that affects many people across the world and Canadian employers have a crucial role to play in addressing this problem. As an employer in Canada, you are required to comply with the applicable human rights legislation in your jurisdiction, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Employers have a responsibility to provide equivalent opportunities for able and disabled staff, as well as treat them the same. Failure to do so is discrimination and against the law. In this guide, we’ll discuss what disability discrimination is, its different forms, and your responsibilities as an employer.

What is a disability?

In simple terms, a disability refers to a condition that causes impairment, limitations, and challenges in everyday activities, including work. Individuals with disabilities may encounter various barriers that hinder their participation in daily life. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that employees with disabilities have equal access to opportunities in the workplace. It’s essential to be aware of the rights that individuals with disabilities have in Canada, regardless of their gender, age, race, or any other protected characteristic.

What are the rights of disabled people in Canada?

People with disabilities in federally regulated workplaces are protected under the  Canadian Human Rights Act (“CHRA”).

Canadian Human Rights Act

The CHRA works to provide equal rights, prohibits discrimination, and protects employees if they’re employed by the Federal Government or private companies regulated by Federal Government such as banks and broadcasters.

However, there is provincial legislation in place to protect people with disabilities throughout Canada. Such as:

  • Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
  • British Columbia’s Human Rights Code.
  • The Human Rights Code in Manitoba.
  • The Alberta Human Rights Act.
  • The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

The above laws protect employees from discrimination and inequitable practices, but it’s important you understand what disability discrimination is before tackling it in your workplace.

What is disability discrimination?

Employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities occurs when they receive or encounter unfavourable treatment from their employer or colleagues due to their actual or perceived disability. This type of discrimination is often associated with ableism, which refers to preconceived notions and biases surrounding disabilities.

Employers should adopt a broad interpretation of the term disability, which encompasses previous, current, and perceived disabilities. It is imperative that, as an employer, you are aware of the various types of discrimination related to disabilities.

Different types of physical or mental disability discrimination

Employment discrimination based on disabilities can manifest in various ways and should be prevented or immediately addressed. Neglecting to address discriminatory conduct can have severe consequences for your company.

Excluding disabled persons from work opportunities

Employers may sometimes purposefully prevent individuals with disabilities from participating in job opportunities, career growth, and assignments. This is considered direct disability discrimination and must be avoided at all costs. For example, if a company decreases an employee’s pay after they return to work following disability-related leave.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs when a company’s policy negatively and inadvertently affects a group of people, resulting in discrimination. For instance, if a company requires all job applicants to be able to drive, some persons with disabilities may be at a disadvantage as they may not be able to drive due to their condition.

Discrimination by association

Discrimination by association refers to treating someone differently because of their association with a family member or friend with a disability. For example, an employer may refuse to promote an employee whose spouse is disabled due to the belief that they will require more time off work to care for their family member.

Disability harassment or creating a poisoned environment

Harassment occurs when someone makes unwelcomed remarks to someone based on their disability.. Allowing such behaviour in the workplace creates a hostile environment and makes employees with disabilities feel unwelcome.

Harassment takes many forms, such as name-calling or nicknames based on disability, ongoing comments to colleagues with disabilities, bullying an employee with a disability, or senior staff harassing disabled employees. For example, an employer tells his staff that learning disabilities don’t exist – people are just lazy. This is highly offensive and discriminates against people with disabilities. Any harassment incidents should be reported immediately to the employer.

Systemic discrimination

Systemic discrimination is a collection of attitudes, policies, or practices that have been developed over time in a workplace. These behaviours are typically challenging to correct and can result in significant disadvantages for employees with disabilities.

How to prevent disability discrimination in the workplace

As an employer, it is your responsibility to ensure a fully inclusive workplace for all employees. Here are some simple steps you can take to prevent disability discrimination:

Provide physical accessibility

Employers should ensure that their physical work environment is accessible to individuals with disabilities. This can include providing wheelchair ramps, accessible washrooms, and other modifications to the workspace.

Educate yourself about disabilities

Increase your knowledge of disabilities and how to accommodate employees with disabilities and provide education to your staff. This will allow you to take a more proactive approach and adopt a positive attitude toward individuals with disabilities.

Establish clear policies

Establish clear policies against discrimination and harassment, as well as clear disciplinary procedures. These should be agreed upon and signed by both parties before employment commences and included in the employee handbook. This will increase the confidence of individuals with disabilities in your company, knowing that you will take disciplinary action against anyone who engages in discriminatory behaviour.

Include individuals with disabilities on decision-making committees

It is essential, particularly after receiving numerous accommodation requests, to include individuals with disabilities in committees that make decisions about building modifications to provide better access. This will boost your employees’ trust in you and your company, resulting in a more satisfied workforce.

Are employers allowed to request medical information from an employee?

An employer does not have the legal right to ask for additional information about an employee’s medical condition or disability if it is already apparent. Normally, an employer only requests medical information if a medical examination is required or if the employer believes that the individual cannot perform the job without significant difficulty. The results of any medical or health exams should be kept in separate, confidential medical records.

Do you need advice updating your policies regarding discrimination?

Disability discrimination is a serious issue that affects individuals with disabilities in various aspects of life, including employment. Canadian employers have legal obligations to ensure that their workplaces are accessible and free from discrimination.

If you need assistance with addressing disability discrimination in the workplace or guidance on implementing an anti-discrimination policy, Peninsula’s services allow you to receive quality advice on any employment issues you may have. Contact us at 1 (833) 247-3652 to speak with one of our experts today.


Related articles

  • Persons discussing a contract


    Olivia CicchiniEmployment Law Expert
    • Employment Contract
  • mental health survey at the workplace


    Peninsula TeamPeninsula Team
    • Employee wellbeing
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP)


    Kiran VirkHead of Talent Acquisition
    • Employee wellbeing
Back to resource hub

Try Peninsula Canada today

Find out what 6500+ businesses across Canada have already discovered. Get round-the-clock HR and health & safety support with Peninsula.

Speak to an expert 24/7

Sign up to our newsletter

Get the latest news & tips that matter most to your business in our monthly newsletter.