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Alcohol and Discrimination


Sometimes addiction services or other services discriminate against older adults who have alcohol problems.

A decision or practice may discriminate on its face - the prohibited ground is explicitly used as basis of differentiation. For example, a policy that states  "we do not take people who have alcohol problems" discriminates directly on basis of disability.

Or a decision or practice may be indirect in its discrimination. In this case, the decision/ practice is neutral on the face, but may adversely affect some individuals and this adverse effect is related to one of the prohibited grounds.

For example, admission criteria that state

 "All prospective clients must be ambulatory, or they they will not be considered for our services"


''all prospective clients must not need to use any medications".

may be considered discriminatory.These requirements have adverse effects for any older adult who has mobility problems (uses a wheelchair) or older adults who need medication. Older adults are much more likely to need prescription medications than younger adults.


What is Systemic Discrimination?

It is a pattern of discrimination.

"Systemic discrimination is discrimination that results from the simple operation of established procedures of admission, discharge, etc. It may be direct, or adverse effects; it may be intentional or not intentional.

There are two kinds of systemic discrimination:

1.Patterns that exclude because they are based on assumptions that certain ability/ characteristic/ way of doing things necessary for a job, when it isn't - i.e., requirement that something must be done in particular way that doesn't accommodate disability;

2. Patterns based on stereotypes assigned to groups. e.g. The erroneous belief that all people who have alcohol problems are violent, or come from certain social or ethnic groups, or conversely, that certain groups are resistant to developing alcohol problems.


When is Discrimination in Services Prohibited?


All Canadian jurisdiction prohibit discrimination based on mental or physical disability when providing services, facilities and accommodation ordinarily available to the public. All jurisdictions except B.C., Alberta, and Newfoundland prohibit discrimination based on age when providing these to the public.

All jurisdictions except Yukon, the N.W.T. and Quebec prohibit discrimination based on the person's dependence on alcohol or drugs, when people are providing services, facilities and accommodation ordinarily available to the public. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, only previous dependence is covered. Quebec does include alcohol dependence indirectly, in the "handicap" ground.

Sometimes the people providing services may try rationalize the discrimination, "But our staff are not trained to handle this." However, there is a legal responsibility to reasonably accommodate the needs of people with mental or physical disabilities or alcohol dependence. Things would probably never change if the services could simply say this.

The issue of alcohol problems as a disability recently came up in a Saskatachewan case in January, 2003. The original article “Regina court rules alcoholism is a disability” appeared in the Regina Leader Post.


The article reporting on the case (Saskatchewan (Department of Finance) v. Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission states:


“Alcoholism is a disability and employers can’t discriminate against employees who suffer from it, says a recent Saskatchewan Court of Queens bench decision. In a 16 page written judgment, Justice Bill Matheson struck down a section of a disability plan sponsored by a branch of the Saskatchewan finance department that dealt with restrictions on benefits to alcoholics. It is believed to be the first time a Saskatchewan court has dealt with chronic alcoholism as a disability protected by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.”


References on Discrimination

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Discrimination and Age: Human Rights Issues Facing Older Persons In Ontario


(Saskatchewan (Department of Finance) v. Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission [2002] SKQB 501) is reported on the Saskatchewan Law Society website at: 


Page last updated Friday July 21, 2006.

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