This year, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the United Nations would like us to reflect on what we can do to empower persons with disabilities. As a union, part of what we do is work to ensure that workplaces are inclusive and welcoming of persons with disabilities.

When it comes to workplace accommodation, we often focus on the employer’s duty to accommodate. The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms is clear: no one should face discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability.  It’s the employer’s duty to create a barrier-free workplace where everyone can work to their full potential.

In practice, however, injured and ill workers often find themselves fighting against stigma on many fronts. This was particularly well illustrated by a qualitative study by the late Dr. Sharon-Dale Stone: Workers without work: injured workers and well-being.

The study sheds light on the experience of injured workers.

With my family, I think I was totally rejected, because I wasn’t working. My father is very traditional where, you know, you never miss a day. You work, and you work no matter whether it’s raining or if you are sore, whatever.

– Man, former bulldozer operator

In addition, injured workers who return to work are sometimes ostracized by their own co-workers.

My co-workers are something else. They make you feel like you’re this high, cause you can’t do something. And they’ve actually voiced it. ‘Do we have to do everything around here?’ … And I don’t appreciate them rubbing it in my face on top of it. Because an injury is not just, it comes with a lot of other problems. And, that you have to deal with. So you don’t, you don’t need that. You don’t need the BS from co-workers that don’t understand it.

– Woman, customer service clerk

Before that, we were […] we might well have been sitting in the bar together all evening. Or spent the weekend in, […] whatever. But you know, as soon as I was hurt, hey, you’re an outcast. You’re out of it.

– Man, former construction worker

Sadly, injured workers and those suffering from invisible disabilities or illnesses are too often met with distrust and misunderstanding from institutions, employers, family and colleagues. Workplace accommodation is paramount – no one is disputing that. Employers are duty-bound to it. But as employees and union members, we can also play a role in creating inclusive and welcoming workplaces for injured workers.

We can start by recognizing and addressing the stigma.