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Outdated laws leave Commission powerless

Michael Hanson

The Human Rights Commission is fielding more and more complaints of discrimination relating to mental health — but remains powerless because of the Island’s outdated laws.

“I am extremely frustrated that it has taken us this long,” HRC chairman Michael Hanson.

“Last year we had 11 complaints of discrimination on the grounds of mental health, but under the Act we can’t deal with them. A lot more human rights complaints have come through this year.” Determined to maintain pressure through advocacy, commissioners have met with various ministers as well as the Premier to cajole or push legislators to include mental health under the Human Rights Act.

“Our three-year term ends in December of this year — they seem more committed to getting this done, and we’re very hopeful that it can happen by the end of our term,” Mr Hanson told The Royal Gazette.

Part of the frustration, he added, has been the comparative ease with which mental health could be covered.

Asked if updating the law would require extensive drafting and analysis, Mr Hanson said: “With mental health, the answer is no.

“Some other things we have put forward, such as abolishing the retirement age, take a lot of background research, and that I understand.

“Every other jurisdiction has this. It’s simple — instead of having just physical disability covered, we also have mental. The issue of what gets defined as mental disability should ultimately be left to the tribunals.”

Mr Hanson, who sees cases of discrimination in his private capacity as a lawyer, said he was in no doubt that “there are some people whose lives have been ruined” because it was still permitted under Bermuda law to discriminate.

“For example, we saw someone who felt that they were not being treated by an organisation because they had mental issues, while others were getting treated in front of them,” he said.

“It looks on paper as though that was indeed the case.”

Mr Hanson said the law was also badly misunderstood by businesses fearing they be forced to hire people with disabilities who would burden them financially or be inappropriate for the job.

In Britain, he said, the law required businesses to consider what adjustments could easily be made to accommodate a worker with a disability.

A $10,000 wheelchair ramp would be categorised a disproportionate cost.

“There is a common sense element to the Act that is being missed,” he said. “If you can’t make the adjustment, you don’t have to do it.”

Compounding the problem was the sense of resignation or genuine fear of discrimination that made people with mental disabilities reluctant to go public.

Mr Hanson pointed to the recent visit to the Island by mental health campaigner Mike Veeny from the United States, who candidly related his own issues and struggles with prejudice as well as socially-imposed shame.

“Mike was talking about the stigma attached to mental illness, but he was coming from a jurisdiction that has that protection in place,” he said.

“If there is no protection, no one will speak up. Why would you raise your hand and say ‘I’m mentally ill’ if you knew that you had no protection?”