Tim McIsaac has a regular nine-to-five job, and for a blind man in Winnipeg, that's a pretty big deal.

Employment rates for blind people in Canada are around 10 per cent, despite many having post-secondary education. It often comes down to the right workplace accommodations — something that has had its challenges for McIsaac.

McIsaac worked for a Winnipeg bank for 14 years, but because the technology he needs to function in the workplace could not keep up with the advances of mainstream technology, he soon lagged behind.

For McIsaac, access to current assistive technology is a must. It allows him to access information from computer technologies in a way that accommodates his disability, but it only goes so far.

"Assistive technology is a little bit like a wheelchair," he said. "A wheelchair can provide mobility to people who are not able to walk, but its capabilities are limited by the environment it has to operate in."

Under human rights law, employers have a duty to accommodate those who encounter barriers in the workplace.

"It's a two-fold process, actually," said Yvonne Peters, a human rights lawyer and chair of the board with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

"The employer has to engage in a process that really explores all options for how to best accommodate this person so that they can do their job effectively."

Employers must find the best accommodation, which at first for McIsaac, meant a reassignment of duties.

"My productivity levels were pretty close to what a sighted person was able to do once I got the hang of the work," he recalled.

"But then again, they changed technologies and it put me in a situation where my access was limited because of the IT [information technology] environment not being able to be compatible with the technology that I needed to access it."

McIsaac estimates that an update to his assistive technology would have cost the bank $150,000, something he believed would constitute undue hardship. However, a costly solution is not reason enough for a workplace to refuse accommodation.

"The employer has to prove it," said Peters. "There's a tendency sometimes for people to say, 'My goodness, that's just going to be too impossible, look what we're facing right now.' But job accommodation requires an honest process."

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission receives about 300 human rights complaints each year. Just over 40 per cent of those complaints are on the ground of disability (both mental and physical), and Peters expects that percentage to rise.

"I don't know that employers are worse … just that our understanding of disability and the need for accommodation is greater," she said.

It took McIsaac 12 years after leaving the bank to find permanent employment. After two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree, he now has a job with the provincial government.

He wants to see employers get more support to create accommodating workplaces.

"They would probably be more open to making opportunities available to people with disabilities because they would find out that probably a lot of the things that they're worried about aren't things that they need to be worried about," said McIsaac.

"Even in cases where there are legitimate concerns, there would be supports there to help them over those hurdles."


Access Denied is a CBC Manitoba series exploring accessibility for people with disabilities in Winnipeg. If you have a story you want to share, email kim.kaschor@cbc.ca.