What is the Canadian Diabetes Association’s position on employment?

The Canadian Diabetes Association believes that a person with diabetes should be eligible for employment in any occupation for which he or she is individually qualified.

In being considered for employment in safety-sensitive positions, a person with diabetes has the right to be assessed for specific job duties on his or her own merits based on reasonable standards applied consistently.

Employers have the duty to accommodate employees with diabetes unless the employer can show it to cause undue hardship to the organization.

Read the CDA's full position statement on employment, including background and rationale.

What is workplace discrimination for people living with diabetes?

Discrimination can come in many forms.  It is possible that an employer may refuse to hire you after an employment medical, limit your job responsibilities or promotions, or fire you.  Sometimes an employer might simply not bother to find out what diabetes really involves and take the easy option of employing someone they don’t see as a risk.

Examples of discrimination in the workplace:

  • You inquire about applying to be an officer with the city police department and are told they do not hire people with diabetes.
  • After experiencing a hypoglycemic reaction at your workplace, you are terminated from your job.
  • Despite requesting a regularly scheduled morning coffee break to test your blood glucose and eat a snack, your employer makes you work through until lunchtime.
  • After the employment medical, your job offer is rescinded because your have type 1 diabetes.

Blanket policies

  • “We do not hire people with diabetes.”
  • “People with diabetes do not meet the medical requirements for this job.”
  • “People with diabetes using insulin are unfit for employment in this job.”

It is discriminatory practice for an employer to establish a policy that denies employment opportunities on a prohibited ground of discrimination (i.e. diabetes) unless the employer can establish the practice to be a bona fide occupational requirement and therefore impossible to accommodate.  

Many blanket policies are a result of long-standing practices, often the result of outdated ideas about diabetes.  Although there are fewer blanket policies these days, some still remain for people with diabetes using insulin.

What can you do about unfair treatment in the workplace?

Problems in the workplace can sometimes be resolved by educating your employer about diabetes and about your medical needs. For more information, see the Canadian Diabetes Association’s Diabetes in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers and Employees.

When education isn’t enough, try to negotiate a resolution to the problem.  Call on others to help, including colleagues, your union, elected officials, or the Canadian Diabetes Association at advocacy@diabetes.ca.

Other times you will need to take more formal action by filing a lawsuit or human rights complaint.

What is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

1981 was the International Year of the Disabled. It marked the year that equality rights were extended to the disabled in an amended version of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in the human rights legislation of most of the provinces in Canada. These protections extend to people living with diabetes.

Section 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was effective April 17, 1985, provides:

15 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination, and in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The Charter applies only to federal, provincial and territorial governments and their boards and agencies.  While the Charter may be used to challenge federal and provincial laws, actions and programs, it cannot be used to remedy discrimination in the private sector. 

Most workplace discrimination issues fall under the jurisdiction of federal or provincial/territorial human rights legislation.

How does human rights legislation help individuals with diabetes that have been discriminated against?

The federal parliament and provincial legislatures in Canada have enacted human rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of physical disability. As defined within the context of human rights law, diabetes is a disability for which discrimination is prohibited.  

Although employers and others are not permitted to discriminate against people with diabetes, sometimes it occurs because of a lack of correct information about diabetes or assumptions made about diabetes.

The Canadian Human Rights Act

In the case of discrimination in the workplace, if you are employed in federal work, the matter would come under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.  Airlines, railways and interprovincial transportation companies are a few examples of matters which fall under federal jurisdiction.

Subsection 3(1), paragraph 7 (a) and section 14 of the Canadian Human Rights Act stipulates the following:

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, race national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted are prohibited grounds of discrimination.

7. It is discriminatory practice, directly or indirectly

(a) to refuse to employ or continue to employ an individual on a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Provincial and Territorial Human Rights Codes

People who are not employed in federal work are governed by the laws of the province or territory in which they work.  Provincial and territorial human rights codes prohibit discrimination on the ground of disability.

What is an employer’s duty to accommodate?

Human rights legislation specifies that an employer must accommodate a person with diabetes up to the point of “undue hardship”.  This means that an employer must do what is necessary in the workplace to enable a person with diabetes to perform the essential duties of a job unless the employer would suffer undue hardship in terms of health, safety and cost.

For example, if an employee with diabetes requires regularly scheduled breaks during the day to have a snack or to administer insulin, the employer would be legally obligated in the vast majority of cases to permit such a break.  

Other requests for accommodation might include:

  • A private area to test blood sugar levels or to take insulin 
  • A place to rest until blood sugar levels become normal after treating low blood glucose
  • A place to store snacks for treatment of hypoglycemia
  • Time off to attend medical appointments

These are the types of accommodations most commonly requested by employees with diabetes, but other employees may need different adjustments or changes.  Employers should ask the particular employee requesting accommodation what he or she needs that will help top do the job.

If a request for reasonable accommodation is declined, an employee can file a human rights complaint against his or her employer.

How do I file a human rights complaint?

If you feel that you have been discriminated against because of diabetes, you should discuss your complaint and the process with a human rights officer with either the Canadian Human Rights Commission (for federal issues) or your provincial/territorial human rights commission (for provincial/territorial issues).

There are deadlines to filing a human rights complaint, so it should be done as soon as possible following the discriminatory action or event.

Federal issues

Local issues

Provincial/Territorial Human Rights Commissions locations:

Is diabetes a disability?

With proper care and treatment, people with diabetes can achieve an optimal quality of life.  Although diabetes can be a potentially disabling disease, particularly if complications ensue, it does not in and of itself constitute a disability.  However, for the purpose of human rights law, diabetes is considered a disability for which discrimination is prohibited.

What is the Canadian Diabetes Association’s position on diabetes as a disability?

People with diabetes have a right to be assessed on an individual basis to determine if their diabetes constitutes a disability as defined within the specific context.

Read the CDA's full position statement on diabetes as a disability, including background and rationale.

Do I need to tell my employer that I have diabetes?

Your medical information is confidential unless you work in a safety-sensitive position.  Therefore, unless health-related questions are directly related to a specific job requirement, you are not required to report medical information on an employment application or in an employment interview. 

Similarly, if you are already working, your employer does not need to be informed about a diagnosis of diabetes unless you wish to disclose or unless you need your employer to provide appropriate accommodation to manage to diabetes.

What is a safety-sensitive position?

Examples include:

  • Firefighters
  • Police officers
  • Commercial Pilots and Cabin Crew
  • Train Engineers 
  • Train Conductors
  • Heavy Machinery Operators
  • Professional/Commercial Drivers

These jobs require a determination of medical fitness as a part of the employment selection process and then regularly thereafter.  Mental and physical fitness is mandatory.  Impaired performance due to a medical condition could result in an incident affecting the health and safety of employees, the public, property or the environment.

It is discriminatory to deny employment because of diabetes.  However, applicants and employees with diabetes will be required to demonstrate that their diabetes is well managed and their risk of hypoglycemia is low.  

Why are some employers afraid to hire a person with diabetes?

Many people do not have a good understanding of diabetes and how it can be managed.  Some employers believe that people with diabetes may present a safety risk to the employer or to the public – a fear often based on misinformation or lack of up-to-date knowledge about diabetes.  Oftentimes the greatest concern is that hypoglycemia will cause sudden unexpected incapacitation.  

Are there occupations a person with diabetes is not permitted to work?

Generally, the restrictions apply to those requiring insulin to manage their diabetes:

  • Canadian Armed Forces
  • Private Pilot License
  • Commercial driving into the United States
  • Commercial Pilot License (unless already a commercial pilot may be permitted to fly with a pilot or a copilot with no medical restrictions)
  • On a ship sailing into international waters

Can an individual with diabetes work shift work? 

Sure, there was a time when having diabetes would have been a deal-breaker if you were being considered for a job that involved shift work. Not anymore. 

Today, managing diabetes on the job is much easier and more effective, thanks to new insulin analogues. Better meters to measure blood glucose and better education for the person with diabetes as well as for employers and co-workers are also helping.

For more information and guidelines, read Diabetes & Shift Work.

How does a union member deal with unfair treatment in the workplace?

Where a union employee faces discrimination at work because of diabetes there may be sufficient grounds to initiate a grievance under the Collective Agreement. A concerned employee should take the matter up with their union representative. In most cases, the union has a duty to pursue the grievance on behalf of the employee and will cover the costs incurred.