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TIFF: Life imitating art?

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I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a TIFF Premiere this past weekend for the film “Welcome to Me”.  In case you’re not familiar with the film, it tells the story of a woman, Alice, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder and wins $86 million in the lottery. The film focuses on the unusual way that she chooses to spend her money: buying her own talk show in which she openly discusses her mental illness, talks about her therapy and re-enacts certain painful events from her past, among many other things. Starring Kristen Wiig as Alice, it is at times comedic, but as Ms. Wiig and the Director, Shira Piven, shared at the Q&A following the Premiere, there is no question that great pains were taken to address the topic of mental illness sensitively and carefully.

As the film opens, Alice is unemployed and appears unemployable. We learn later in the film that she stopped working as a veterinary nurse because of her illness. However, because of her lottery win, she joins the workforce again (in a manner of speaking), and it was interesting to observe the manner in which those around her struggled to adapt. What particularly struck me about the film was how unique the circumstances were and how everyone around Alice tried as best they could to maintain some control while managing the increasingly unpredictable nature of her requests and demands.

I give much legal advice to employers who face similar challenges trying to support their employees who suffer from mental illness. I often encounter employers who wish to “standardize” their approach to these issues with a policy or procedure which attempts to inject some certainty into the accommodation process. In these cases, there is a desire to set out a series of steps that will be followed in the hopes that staff who might encounter employees with mental health issues will know exactly what to do when faced with a challenging accommodation issue. These are laudable goals, especially when we read new cases out of human rights tribunals every day outlining employer liability associated with taking the wrong steps.

That being said, I think this film provides an effective reminder that disability cases are highly individual, and probably none more so than those dealing with mental illness. To have tried to anticipate or predict the kinds of things that Alice requested in connection with her talk show would have been an exercise in futility. Similarly, it can be extremely difficult to predict and subsequently respond to the needs of those coping with mental illness at work.

There are, though, some things we know to be true. Employers have a duty to accommodate.  This duty has two distinct components. It begins with the procedural duty to gather any and all information necessary to understand and subsequently analyze the employee’s accommodation request. Only after all of this information has been gathered can an employer effectively move to the second substantive duty which involves determining if the accommodation can be provided short of undue hardship. We also know that more employers actually fail at the procedural step because they make assumptions or knee-jerk decisions about their ability to accommodate without all of the available information.

I certainly recommend “Welcome to Me” and hope that you will agree that Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of Alice can serve as a reminder that every person living with a mental illness is uniquely different.  As such, each analysis of the accommodation required to address that person’s individual needs will similarly need to be uniquely crafted.

Christine Thomlinson