TORONTO – The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal says Bell Canada discriminated against a seriously ill woman by forcing her to violate her doctor’s orders and go to a store in person in order to acquire a cellphone.
Linda Mills of London, Ont. was bedridden and recovering from both chemotherapy and a stroke at the time of the incident in July 2014.
The tribunal decision says Mills wanted to acquire a phone and activate it the same day, adding Bell Canada only offered that service in-store to people who could present photo ID.
Mills was under doctor’s orders to stay home due to her compromised immune system, so her son tried to collect the phone on her behalf.
The decision says Bell sales associates refused to account for these circumstances, forcing Mills to violate her doctor’s instructions in order to pick up the phone she needed to have on hand as a safety measure given her illness.
The tribunal found Bell discriminated against Mills on the grounds of disability and ordered the company to make its policies more accommodating within the next six months. Bell must also pay Mills $10,000 plus interest as compensation.
Mills said she looks forward to seeing new policies in place at the telecom giant, adding she pursued the complaint with the tribunal on behalf of those who may find themselves in a similar situation some day.
“I know there are a lot of people out there that can’t get to the store because they can’t drive or don’t have volunteers or they live alone,” Mills said in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘Bell Mobility must have a way to help these people. It’s just not fair.'”
Mills’ ordeal began in 2013 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Unsuccessful surgery led to a particularly aggressive chemotherapy treatment at doses so high they brought on a stroke and multiple seizures, according to the decision.
Mills said her medical condition caused her weight to drop to around 100 pounds and prompted her to go on long-term disability with the school board that employed her as a principal.
In July 2014, Mills said she was in the process of returning her board-issued cellphone. She felt it was important to have an immediate replacement on hand in case her precarious health took an unexpected turn, she said.
Bell’s policies stated that customers hoping for a cellphone with same-day activation had to present themselves in store and present photo identification. Phones could also be purchased online or over the phone, but those cases involve a lag between the time of purchase and the day the phone arrives and is ready for use.
Another option would have been to prepay the entire cost of the phone in advance, an approach Mills said is unfair to those with limited financial means.
Bell contended that its policies were necessary to prevent fraud.
Mills said her son called ahead to a Bell retail location to discuss collecting the cellphone on her behalf, but was told that could not be arranged.
According to the decision, Mills’ son apprised staff of his mother’s circumstances, offered to bring in all her relevant identification documents and proposed to put her on the phone so she could provide verbal authorization, but the company stood firm.
Mills, who had been a Bell customer for more than 40 years, ultimately decided to adhere to the policy in violation of all medical advice.
“It was an arduous and dangerous thing for her to do in her condition, but she felt she had no choice given she wanted it activated that day so her son could help her start using it while he was visiting her,” Edward Lustig wrote in the tribunal decision.
“It took her over an hour to get ready and be driven to the mall and moved by wheelchair into the store in order to get the phone and be visually identified in the store. Once in the store, the process took no more than 5 minutes.”
Bell argued that it had not discriminated against Mills, asserting she could have obtained a cellphone through other channels such as online ordering.
Lustig disagreed, saying the option for same-day activation was available to able-bodied customers and denied to people in Mills’ situation.
Bell also argued that Mills did not suffer as a result of their policy, since she was able to obtain a cellphone in the end. Lustig took exception to this position as well.
“Contrary to Bell’s submissions, I find the fact that Ms. Mills did ultimately attend in person at the store had a negative impact on her as it caused her great difficulty, was dangerous to her health and contrary to the medical advice of her doctor,” he said.
Lustig ordered Bell to change its policies to ensure people in Mills’ position would be able to acquire a post-paid phone with same-day activation without appearing in person.
He nonetheless called Bell a “socially responsible” company that cares about its customers in general, citing the telecom’s high-profile efforts to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Bell spokesman Nathan Gibson said the company is working to implement the changes called for in Lustig’s decision, adding Bell takes its commitment to its customers with disabilities “very seriously.”