Guest Commentary: Stigma & Sensitivities: Must They Coexist?

By Carol Lewis
Posted Mar 3, 2010

Those with environmental sensitivities look just like anyone else, yet their bodies react very differently to such things as automobile exhaust, moulds, fragrances, tobacco smoke and pesticides. While reactions often effect the respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive and/or muscular systems, most everyone with environmental sensitivities experiences neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety, coordination problems, difficulties with memory and concentration, feeling spaced out, etc. These types of symptoms can have a strong impact on employability.

Like the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) formally recognizes “environmental sensitivities” as a disability. The Ontario Human Rights Code notes the broad definition of disability used by the Supreme Court which considers the effects of exclusion experienced by persons with disabilities.

People may respond very differently to those with non-evident disabilities than they do to visibly-disabled persons. For example, people’s hearts are often moved by the sight of someone in a wheelchair. Many would go to great lengths to assist that person, if necessary. Those same individuals might be much less sensitive to the needs of a person with a mental disability, for example. What happens when accommodating the needs of a non-visibly disabled person involves some personal sacrifice and perhaps some inconvenience, too? Let’s explore the impact that environmental sensitivities may have on personal relationships, when a person – like many afflicted with environmental sensitivities – has adverse reactions to synthetic fragrances.

Say a scent-sensitive person wishes to attend a function and asks someone who will be attending to please reduce or refrain from wearing a fragrance that has made them ill repeatedly in the past. That person might react defensively and be shocked – even outraged – that someone would even presume to suggest what they can and cannot wear. How dare they? Why should they change their personal habits? They may feel that the other person is trying to control them and decide that the person making the request has an overly developed sense of their own importance. They do not understand that it is a health issue. They may even delegitimize the person, trivializing their concerns by suggesting their disability is psychosomatic. Thus they may rationalize their decision to ignore the request and wear fragrance anyway.

And what of the person with the disability? As they struggle to come to terms with the reality of being exposed to fragrance most everywhere they go, as they grieve the loss of the fundamental rights and freedoms they once enjoyed, do they lash out in anger at others? Most likely. When everything from buying eggs to going to work becomes complicated by fragrance sensitivity, do they talk about it too much? Perhaps they try to speak out while anxious, disorientated or confused from a reaction to fragrance chemicals and cannot communicate clearly. How sensitive are they when they make their request? Yet, how can a request for someone to alter their personal care habits even be considered sensitive? Some would argue that a sensitive approach is impossible.

Actually, the person making the request may feel just as uncomfortable as the person being asked. And, according to Dalhousie University’s scent-free program, although such a request may seem intrusive, “when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a … personal and private matter” because it involves “real harm to real people.”

Those afflicted with environmental sensitivities who are unwilling to resign themselves to a life of either sickness or isolation, may repeatedly and unsuccessfully request that others respect their health needs. Do they grow weary with frustration and despair? Do they find themselves viewing others with fresh eyes? Do others begin to see them differently? These types of dynamics can lead to the stigmatization of people with environmental illness.

Going back to the hypothetical situation, is the refusal to accommodate the request of the person with sensitivities the equivalent of a person placing a barrier across a wheelchair ramp and then going in to enjoy the function while the disabled person sits alone outside? No, of course not. It’s not similar, is it? The effect may be the same – in both cases, a person with a disability experiences a barrier that prevents them from experiencing a full and normal life – but the intention is different. In one situation, a person deliberately creates a physical barrier. In the other, a person creates a chemical barrier by wearing fragrance.

Some might suggest that the person with environmental illness can still go in. But, if they do, they may be ill for 2-3 days. Some may even be hospitalized. What kind of choice is that? Should those most sensitive to fragrance exposure wear a mask? A person wearing a mask may have difficulty breathing or talking through it which can compound feelings of alienation. Others may not know how to respond to the person since they cannot see their facial expressions. A mask can lead to ostracism and is not conducive to personal comfort or dignity.

Though it is not common knowledge, up to a third of Canadians suffer at least some degree of discomfort from environmental sensitivities, according to the CHRC. Just over a million Canadians have actually been doctor-diagnosed with environmental sensitivities but it is likely that many more suffer from it, given that it is a frequently misdiagnosed and poorly understood condition. According to Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Health Clinic at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, “about one-third of the Canadian population is sensitive to fragrances.”

Will society continue to ignore the needs of those with sensitivities? Are we to fight the good fight alone, unsupported, even stigmatized, by community? Alternatively, need we resign ourselves to a life of isolation from others?

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

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