Jan. 13, 2020

A cab driver refused him service. But Michael Gottheil is no ordinary passenger

Diversity Days keynote speaker unpacks navigating a world without 'undue hardship' on Jan. 28


Marta Cyperling, Office of Advancement

Michael Gottheil and Kirby

Michael Gottheil will give the keynote address at Diversity Days Jan. 28.

A cab driver recently refused to accept a passenger at the Edmonton airport, as the driver claimed he had severe allergies and couldn’t accommodate the passenger’s service dog Kirby. This wasn’t the first time the passenger, Michael Gottheil, had difficulty hailing a cab, but this time Gottheil was surprised by what came next.

The driver had a note from his doctor claiming he would suffer undue hardship accepting the fare. His health claim of undue hardship are the magic legal words, where a service provider in Canada can sometimes claim accommodation is not possible because it would cost too much, or create a health or safety risk.

Gottheil, who is visually impaired, was frustrated and upset. However, he also looked at the situation through another lens. As a lawyer and human rights adjudicator, he was amused the driver knew enough of human rights law to have used the words 'undue hardship.'

“I have to admit that I tend to have a more nuanced approach than many when it comes to the issue of accommodation. Perhaps it is because of my role as a human rights adjudicator, trained to always consider both sides of a case. Perhaps it is my character that I am curious about the other person’s perspective,” says Gottheil, chief of commission and tribunal of the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Yet in both my professional and personal life, I am regularly confronted by navigating issues of inclusion, diversity and equality through an adversarial lens.

Gottheil is invited to speak at the University of Calgary as part of this year’s Diversity Days series. He will deliver an inspirational address, A Circle With Many Centres: Imagining a World Without Undue Hardship, as part of keynote event. Throughout his career, he has worked on initiatives that seek to make justice more accessible, efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs of the public. Gottheil has practised labour, employment and human rights law for close to 20 years.

”Fundamentally, the question in human rights cases come down to a human interaction – someone was refused service, someone was not interviewed or hired, someone was treated differently because of their gender, race or disability. The law then pits one against the other. 

"Who has suffered more? Who can show greater hardship and harm? There is a certain irony there. After all, human rights are supposed to promote dignity, respect and bring us together as one another’s equals,” he says.

Please join us as we kick off Diversity Days with a keynote from Michael Gottheil, chief of commission and tribunal of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. This is a free event, and RSVP is required.

UCalgary Diversity Days, Jan. 28 to 30, 2020 offers free events and activities to explore relevant topics. Check out the full schedule.