Accommodations: What are they and how are they obtained?

Human Rights law sets out a number of protected grounds. These protected grounds are outlined in the Alberta Human Rights Act and include: 

  • race, 
  • religious beliefs, 
  • colour, 
  • gender, 
  • gender identity, 
  • gender expression, 
  • physical disability, 
  • mental disability, 
  • age, 
  • ancestry, 
  • place of origin, 
  • marital status, 
  • source of income, 
  • family status, and 
  • sexual orientation. 

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against someone on these grounds, except in very limited circumstances (ex. a bona fide occupational requirement), whether or not the discrimination is intentional. Prohibiting discrimination on these grounds gives rise to the Duty to Accommodate

Duty to accommodate

In the workplace context, the Duty to Accommodate means that employers (such as the university) must provide exceptions to typical policies and practices, and alter physical work environments, in order to avoid discriminating against any of its employees to the point of undue hardship. For example, an ULFA member with limited mobility must be provided with accessible spaces in which to perform their duties. The accommodation may look different depending on the specific needs of the member. Further, the accommodation must maintain the dignity of the member. The Alberta Human Rights Commission has provided a guide on this process (which can be found here). This page draws on the information in that document and from the Alberta Human Rights Act.

Seeking an accommodation

Seeking an accommodation involves a few steps. You must participate in the accommodations process, and ULFA can assist you with it. 

Accommodations related to physical or mental health

Many accommodations are made for reasons related to physical and mental health, though accommodations can be sought for any of the protected grounds. If you require an accommodation due to one or more medical conditions then you will need supporting documentation from a qualified healthcare practitioner. You must discuss the issue with your healthcare practitioner and contact Wellness and Recognition for forms your healthcare practitioner will need to fill out. 

Your medical diagnosis does not need to be disclosed to anyone including the University administration or the University Wellness officer. Instead, your healthcare practitioner identifies what restrictions need to be accommodated in your work duties due to your health situation. Once Wellness and Recognition receives these forms and confirms what accommodations you require, they will communicate these accommodations to your supervisor (your Dean or equivalent). You will then need to discuss the accommodations with your supervisor and suggest how these accommodations can be made in practice. Again, we would like to emphasise that the employer has no right to know the precise nature of your disability or medical condition: the Wellness Office, Human Resources, and the university administration are required to accommodate the restrictions as they are specified by the healthcare professional to the point of undue hardship.

Non-Medical accommodations

If you seek accommodations for non-medical reasons, then it needs to be made clear to the employer what policy or practice is potentially discriminatory, on what protected ground(s) it would be discriminatory, and suggest an accommodation that would prevent discrimination from occurring. For example, if your scheduled work duties interfered with responsibilities that result from religious beliefs or family status, the employer could avoid discriminating against you by rescheduling those duties to avoid the potential conflict.

What is the employer required to do?

The employer is legally obligated to accommodate you up to the point of undue hardship. Undue hardship is the point where the changes an employer are required to make to accommodate an employee are so onerous that they result in significant cost or disruption. The onus is on an employer to prove they will suffer undue hardship due to an accommodation request, and any claim of undue hardship is assessed within the context of the employer’s resources. For example, the university is held to a different standard than a small business with four employees when assessments of undue hardship are made. Hardship is also assessed on the basis of the organisation as a whole, rather than any subordinate unit. The University cannot, for example, claim undue hardship for an accommodation on the basis that it would harm the ability of a specific department to deliver its courses. Given this, the bar for undue hardship for an employer the size of the UofL would be very high. 

Do they have to do what I say?

The accommodations framework is designed to give both parties (employer and employee) input into how to implement accommodations to ensure no discrimination occurs. The employer is required to provide accommodations that adequately address the needs or restrictions identified for a given employee; they are not required to provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee if other options exist that address the restriction, and are preferred by the employer. All accommodations, however, must address the restriction, and must maintain the dignity of the employee.

If you want to request an accommodation on a protected ground or obtain more information on how this process functions, please contact any member of ULFA staff for assistance.