Guide dog proves a barrier to employment

Discrimination hinders Saanich resident’s efforts to rejoin workforce

Tessa Hawkins and her guide dog Merlot are hoping the new Guide Dog Act will make a difference. Hawkins says the presence of her dog has kept her from being considered for a job.

Two years removed from completing a masters of arts, Tessa Hawkins is still seeking permanent employment.

In her experience, landing an interview hasn’t been a problem. She’s had well over a dozen since 2013. But the job offers are few and far between.

The Saanich resident has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Victoria and a masters from the University of Alberta. She also has epilepsy, and because she suffers from seizures, is accompanied full time by a working dog.

Because she brings the dog to interviews, she finds she is unfairly discriminated against. Just last month, a Victoria business employee told Hawkins “they didn’t have room for pets,” and removed her from the competition. Though the company later apologized and re-inserted her to the competition, it doesn’t matter, Hawkins said.

Naturally, Hawkins felt obligated to tell employers about the dog but has since become very sensitive to the fact that it’s personal medical information she’d prefer not to share with a “virtual stranger.” Unfortunately it’s a catch-22 situation, she says.

“Whether I say something or not there are negative consequences. If you withhold the dog… get the job, and inform them after, you won’t start out on a good note with your employer.”

Compare that to a heart condition, she says.

“You don’t walk around wearing a sign that says you have a heart condition, but you happen to find out that I have epilepsy because the dog says I have epilepsy,” Hawkins said. “My medical bracelet also says it, but I don’t walk into a room saying ‘I’m Tessa, I have epilepsy.’”

Hawkins attended about 14 interviews between 2013 and 2014 with her since retired guide dog Kash, she said. Following one of them, she was informed by a friend on the interview panel that her guide dog was in fact a deciding factor in the final decision.

It’s illegal, as the dog is permitted by law to accompany her everywhere, but following up with action is stressful. It’s also disheartening to take action, especially if the outcome is to get a job somewhere she no longer wishes to work.

Out of frustration, Hawkins left the dog at home for her next interviews. Early last year she was offered two jobs over a three-day period. She accepted one, a temporary placement at Craigdarroch Castle. The dog was a welcome surprise with staff but the contract has now ended.

Now she’s on the job hunt again, and would like the dog to be accepted without anyone questioning why it’s there.

Merlot, her two-year-old flat coat retriever, is trained through the Lions Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs program and will bark, seek help or retrieve Hawkins’ phone in case of a seizure.

As of Jan. 18, the new B.C. Guide Dog and Service Dog Act will upgrade several rules. One of the key changes is the ability of owners to obtain a licence for themselves and their working dog. If someone interferes with their access to a facility, the police can be called and instantly issue a fine.

However, it doesn’t state anything about employment rights, which falls under employment standards.

“Probably in most cases, it’s prudent just in case your future employer has to make accommodations, or if someone has allergies, so they can accommodate both persons,” said William Thornton, CEO and co-founder of the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs.

Thornton was saddened to hear of Hawkins’ case, saying it’s not the first time he’s heard of highly capable people unable to secure appropriate work because of a condition or disability. Ideally, Hawkins would like to work in the arts field, consistent with her education. However, she’s happy to work in an administration type role for its stability.

“As soon as I am labelled as ‘disabled’ with my guide dog, my ability to work is called into question regardless of what is on my resume and my successful employment and academic history,” she wrote in a letter to Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Michelle Stilwell.

“If it were my choice, I would prefer to focus on my qualifications and education rather than the breed of my dog guide… many individuals continue to be uneducated about the programs and the lack of education continues to negatively affect handlers’ daily life.

“I can only hope that more measures are put into place to further epilepsy research and educate the public.”

 

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