POLITICS

Public servants with disabilities fear cuts

03/21/2012 10:45 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Some federal bureaucrats with disabilities worry next week’s budget — and the job cuts expected to follow — will give managers an excuse to lay them off.

The federal government has clear rules about the treatment of employees with disabilities. The policy says there’s a “duty to accommodate” and develop an “inclusive, barrier-free work environment in which everyone has equal access to opportunities.”

But some bureaucrats say accommodation is often perceived as costly and that sometimes, workers are pressured to take medical leave or retirement.

Dan Mooney goes to work every day at the naval base at Esquimalt, B.C. He’s had his public service job at the Department of National Defence for decades, but these days, he doesn’t have much to do.

Layoffs would be 'short-sighted': advocate

“I’m in a bit of limbo,” said Mooney.

A condition called wet macular degeneration stole his sight over the past few years. While his managers have given him the tools to accommodate his disability, he hasn’t actually been given new responsibilities.

“The system isn’t designed for someone who says, 'Oh, OK, I lost my eyesight, what do you want me to do now?' The accepted attitude was, you’re disabled, you’re going on disability, we’ve met our obligation to you, we’re doing the best we can in difficult fiscal times.”

So Mooney has taken on tasks as the national co-chair of the Advisory Group for Persons with Disabilities, a voluntary role that helps raise the concerns of people with disabilities to the chain of command.

“When a person with a disability goes back to work and becomes a productive member of society, everybody wins,” he said. “The co-workers win because they look at the individual and say, you know, if that ever happens to me, I know my life isn’t over.”

Mooney said it would be shortsighted for managers to target people with disabilities as they plan layoffs.

“It would certainly be easier if we could give these people a pension and send them home,” said Mooney, “if it were a fact that we were mannequins that could be put on a shelf and be stored, but that’s not the case.”

Sheri Daneliak said she’s being pressured to do just that — leave her public service position and take a medical pension. But she's only 45 years old.

Daneliak worked as a contractor for several years before becoming a full-time public servant more than a decade ago. But in 2003, just a few years into her position as a contracting officer with Emergency Preparedness, strange things started happening to her.

“I was waking up in the night, grabbing my throat, unable to breathe,” said Daneliak. “I would be smelling odd smells that weren’t there. I’d see flashing colours in my brain.”

Daneliak said she continued to work long hours at a demanding job. She was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy and went on medication.

“It was the opposite of accommodation, they were pushing me to work longer, the seizures got worse,” she said.

In February 2004, Daneliak was too sick to continue working. She’s since been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and remains on long-term disability leave.

“I think several years ago when this situation happened, there could have been a lot of accommodations made for me," she said. "And I could still be working. I could still be in my profession. I could still be climbing. But I’ve been shoved aside.”

Public Service Commission to file report

According to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, there are currently more than 400 complaints of discrimination and “failure to accommodate” people with disabilities. That’s a statistic for just one of several federal government unions.

Mooney is familiar with the complaints.

“I hear all the cases that aren’t working and there are a lot of cases that do work,” he said. “And when it doesn’t work, look at the harm, because it’s not an administrative exercise, it’s not an exercise in policy, it’s genuine human beings facing probably some of the largest challenges they’ll ever face in their life.”

The Public Service Commission is currently analyzing data on persons with disabilities. It plans to publish a report this fall. One of the commission’s priorities is recruiting people with disabilities. Last fall, the former head of the commission told a senate committee that “for the disabled, we really have a challenge because we are not even getting the applications in at a workforce availability rate. We have more to do in that area.”

Mooney and Daneliak both said there’s more work to do to help disabled public servants already on staff.