Women's Health Matters

Text Size
Jump to body content

Women and Disability

In December 2006, our guest expert in Le Club's Ask the Expert segment was Sheila Behnke, an Accessibility Services Consultant with the Ontario March of Dimes.

Part of Shelia’s job there is performing barrier-free audits and conducting Sensitivity and Accessibility Awareness workshops.

Sheila has more than 30 years experience advocating and facilitating environments that are inclusive of people with disabilities. Her current focus is assisting businesses, institutions and organizations to understand and comply with the new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Here are Sheila's answers to your questions about Women and Disability.

Q: I developed RSI in my former position and filed a Worker's Compensation claim, which was subsequently declined. I've since changed jobs, and have more computer work in my current job, as well as being older, with additional problems with arthritis. How do I go about receiving support to change jobs, or cut back on work time? Can I claim through Worker's Compensation again? Are there contact persons you can recommend, who could give advice to someone in my position?

A: There are a number of factors involved in your case. Some details not disclosed in your question would affect what course of action you should take. It would be in your best interest to speak to someone to whom you can provide specifics such as dates and the reason your initial claim was denied. If you are part of a bargaining unit you should contact your union representative and ask for the staff person who is knowledgeable about Workers' Compensation law. If you are not part of a bargaining unit, contact the Office of the Worker Advisor 1-800-435- 8980 or online at www.owa.gov.on.ca. The OWA offers free information, advice and assistance to non-unionized workers regarding workplace insurance matters.


Q: I am concerned for the future. At this point I can still drive and walk without aids but between osteoporosis and RA I am afraid the future is grim. I am trying to be proactive and stay able but the doctors have no time to treat anything more than the immediate problems I face. I am constantly prioritizing my symptoms and problems in order to try and stay "healthy" and I almost feel that the doctors are getting sick of me and my worries.

My concern is with health care in people with disabilities and access to normal prevention of and testing for regular, normal health issues in a strained health-care system.

A: Your concern is understandable and is shared by many. Osteoporosis Canada has a wonderful website full of information and support for people with osteoporosis. One of the features on the site is the Canadian Osteoporosis Patient Network. You may enjoy participating in this virtual network whose mandate includes influencing decision makers in health-care policy and increasing public awareness of osteoporosis.


Q: Hello. I have been recently diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My problem is that no one at work takes this seriously. They think it's some sort of "made up" condition. I think if I had something visibly wrong with me they would be more understanding. But some days I have difficulty concentrating, I have a lot of medical appointments, and I have trouble lifting heavy boxes (this is not strictly part of my job, but deliveries do come in from time to time). I think my co-workers just think I am lazy and making up my symptoms. How can I get treated fairly at work - what are my rights? Is this something I could lose my job over?

A: Because there is no clear cut, irrefutable diagnostic tool that identifies Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, it can sometimes be difficult to convince coworkers of the validity of the disability. There are a few things you can do increase people's awareness and understanding of CFS/ME:

If you have already made your employer aware of your disability, speak to your employer or the Health and Wellness representative at your place of work about your symptoms and ask for assistance in educating fellow employees about ME. Your employer can do this without identifying you specifically by approaching it as Health and Wellness communiqué. The Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Association of Ontario is an excellent resource and source of support for you. Through their Help Line numbers 416-222-8820 and 1-877-632-6682 or online at http://meao-cfs.on.ca/ you can request an information package, brochures and the contacts for M.E. / CFS support groups in Ontario.

It is against the law in Ontario for an employer to fire someone just because of a disability. This is covered in section 5(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code. It says: Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, record of offences, marital status, family status or handicap. MEAO can also give you a list of physicians and lawyers who are familiar with M.E. / CFST.

In the meantime, to learn more about coping with your symptoms, you may want to check your local library for one of these books:

1. A Complete and Compassionate Guide by Katrina Berne and Daniel L. Peterson
2. Coping With CFS: Nine Things You Can Do by Fred Friedberg
3. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Comprehensive Guide to Symptoms, Treatments, and Solving the Practical Problems of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Gregg Charles Fisher
4. From Fatigue To Fantastic by Dr. Jacob Teiltebaum
5. Sick and Tired of Feeling Sick and Tired: Living With Invisible Chronic Illness by Paul J. Donoghue, PhD, and Mary E. Siegel, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: Please see our detailed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Health Centre, as well as our Resource Database for more resources on this topic.


Q: My daughter suffered a head injury when she was just a child, which left her slightly disabled (developmentally delayed). Now she is 20 years old and wants to get a job, be more independent, maybe one day move out on her own. I am terrified about this, and feel torn. I want to be encouraging and I think it's great that she wants this. But it scares me to think of how naive she is and how much more easily she might be taken advantage of because of her disability. Please help, what should I do?

A: It is understandable that you are concerned for your daughter's safety and happiness. The fact that your daughter sees and wants an independent future says that you have done a wonderful job supporting and nurturing her growth. Now she is ready to take the next steps to prepare herself. Throughout Ontario there are various programs offered by associations for community living that provide employment training, career opportunities and skill development for individuals with an intellectual disability.

These programs help the person learn how to build relationships, manage money, live safely in the community, develop job skills, write resumes, apply and interview for jobs. Community Living Ontario can provide you and your daughter with a contact list for associations in your area. For programs outside Ontario, contact the Canadian Association for Community Living.


Q: My boyfriend is functionally blind (he has some very limited vision). It is a genetic thing, and there is a good chance of passing it on to his children. People keep asking me if I am not afraid of having his children someday, because there is a good chance they will be blind too. I am so tired of this question! Don't they see that by asking this, they are basically saying that a blind person's life is inferior, and are thereby invalidating my boyfriend's life and all his achievements? How do I answer this question gracefully, while still letting people know that what they are asking is actually quite offensive to me? (It happens A LOT.)

A: Unfortunately it happens far too often that people assume that someone who is different from themselves is in some way deficient. We still have a long way to go to become a society that is inclusive of everyone and appreciates all our individual differences and strengths. You may be able to help enlighten those folks who ask you the insensitive and irritating questions by replying with something along these lines:

"You wouldn't believe how often I am asked that question. I guess it is hard for folks who don't know a blind person to see beyond that one, single aspect of someone and notice the whole person. I bet you didn't know that my boyfriend (fill in the blank ….works, is finishing school, plays sports, volunteers, goes to the movies, etc.)"

While you want to be graceful, I wouldn't worry too much about being tactful in response to an offensive question. You can also refer the people who ask this kind of question to Ontario March of Dimes. They offer workshops in Accessibility and Sensitivity Awareness that uses the 'People First' approach and helps participants realize 'doing something in a different manner does not mean inferior.'


Q: I have epilepsy, but it's under control with medication. I get the occasional dizzy spell, but I am lucky...I haven't had a full blown seizure in years. My question is this: I am soon starting a new job. Am I obligated to tell them I have this disease? I feel like it's none of their business, and that they will treat me differently if they knew (they did at my last job.) I am thinking of this as a fresh start, and maybe as my chance to be thought of as "normal" for once. Is this a mistake?

A: Whether or not to disclose a disability is always a difficult decision. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if the disability or condition is going to affect job performance, it should be disclosed to allow for reasonable accommodation under the employer's Duty to Accommodate. If you think that you will need to be accommodated in the workplace, you should tell your employer. If the disability or condition does not affect job performance, it does not have to be disclosed. You may want to visit Epilepsy Ontario's website for a very useful chart that can help you with your decision.


Q: I am a 46 year old woman with many health issues and have recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I have been told that I do not qualify for disability assistance and I must continue to push myself to work full time or else face dismissal from my job. I need to work and keep my benefits but the constant physical pain and chronic fatigue are wearing me down. Do you have any advice on how I need to apply for disability and the process in general?

A: There does seem to be difficulty qualifying for ODSP based on a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. Apparently a few people have had success when their physicians have identified on the forms the actual impact of the disability rather than simply stating symptoms.


Q: I am 59 and I have had polio for 57 years and post-polio for over 20 yrs. I have just had a bone density test and my polio affected leg has extreme osteoporosis. My "good" leg is osteopenic. I am now taking 1500 mg calcium/day 1000 vitamin D & 35 mg of Actonel once a week.

Should I take even more precautions due to my post-polio syndrome? I use crutches and a scooter, am careful on wet/slippery floors and I go down stairs carefully. I have been exercising four times a week at the senior's centre but have to cut down in Jan. due to finances. Thank you.

A: Polio Canada 1-800-480-5903 has a wealth of information for you. They can put you in touch with the National Polio Survivors Network, the Polio Survivors Registry, support groups, an online forum, and the most up-to-date information on coping with late effects of polio and post polio syndrome. You can request Polio Canada send an information package to your health care professionals.


Q: I am a woman in my late 50's with several hidden disabilities: arthritis and problems with my hands as a result of a repetitive strain injury that make it difficult to hold and manipulate objects. I also have extremely poor balance. I find that people are quite good about offering me a seat on the subway or bus, but they are offended by my backpack, which I use because of my hands. The other day, a very small man (no doubt afraid to tackle the big teenage males who use backpacks) made a sarcastic remark and asked me to take it off. I told him I had a hidden disability and couldn't remove it, but why did I have to explain? What could I have done? I'm tired of ignoring such remarks and three days later, my feelings are still hurt.

A: The situation you describe is a difficult one to resolve easily for a number of reasons. Public transit systems are often overcrowded, forcing many people to share sit, stand and move about in a tight space. Extra baggage makes this more challenging and some people are not careful about how their bags, luggage, parcels infringe on the personal space of others and sometimes even injure others. Because your disability is hidden, a person who does not know you cannot distinguish your need to wear your backpack, even in a crowded space, from someone who is just being inconsiderate.

The man who spoke rudely to you may have used a kinder approach, but we don't know what past experience he has had or what kind of day he was experiencing, or even if he, too, has a hidden disability that precipitated his reaction. If it is possible to use a smaller backpack you may want to try that and try to be watchful of situations where your needs might infringe on someone else's. The best you can do is apologize and explain. If you don't tell people you have a disability when you need consideration it is impossible for them to understand and accommodate you.


Q: I have a physical disability and also am going through menopause. Sometimes I don't know which are the effects of menopause and aging and which are the effects of my disability. Is there anywhere I can find information to help me understand the impact of disabilities on menopause? Do you think doctors are aware of these issues? Any ideas on how to educate them?

A: The Canadian Women's Health Network, at www.cwhn.ca/resources/afi/disability.html, has some interesting articles on menopause and physical disabilities. Some physicians are more enlightened than others when it comes to menopause and the day-to-day effects of living with disabilities. The website offers an opportunity to become active with the CWHN and help educate health care professionals about the interactions between menopause, disabilities and aging.


Q: I worry about a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair. I don't think she goes often enough for Pap smears and mammograms because she is so humiliated by examining tables, etc. that don't accommodate people with disabilities. Do you know if hospitals and doctors offices are ever going to accommodate people with disabilities?

A: The Canadian Women's Health Network is a good source of information about disabilities and women's health issues. Under Bill 118, the new provincial legislation that governs accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities, doctors and hospitals and clinics will eventually become more user friendly for people such as your friend. The legislation is being phased in over the course of 20 years, so it won't happen too quickly. You can help you friend now, by reminding her of the importance of mammograms and Pap tests and offering to help her find a clinic that has already made some accommodations. She will need to let the clinics know what her needs are as far as space to maneuver, stand, sit, get onto an exam table.


Jump to top page

Connect with us

Subscribe to our E-Bulletin

  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital