Interacting with customers, fixing their devices, and getting a front-row seat to Apple’s latest offerings were a regular occurrence for Robert Shaw, who, until last summer, worked for the tech giant since 2011.
But now the 33-year-old is suing his former employer for lost wages and damages, alleging that Apple repeatedly refused to work on an individual accommodation plan with him and instead provided piecemeal solutions to his disability.
Shaw requires the use of a wheelchair, and as a former member of the technical support “Genius” team – the blue-shirted Apple experts who know the company’s products inside-out – had made several requests once he was transferred to Apple’s Sherway Gardens store in Toronto late 2017. Before that, he worked in an Apple Store across town in Mississauga.
Shaw requested tables that were 30 inches off the ground, roughly five inches lower than the ones typically found in the store. Reaching up to handle products and addressing customer requests was an awkward motion that consistently put stress on his upper body. He said he was assured that, upon his arrival, the tables would be in place, and automatic doors would be installed so he wouldn’t have to wrench them open from his wheelchair.
Four months passed at the Sherway Gardens Apple store, and none of his requests were addressed, he said. Instead, management experimented with small trays – Shaw describes them as small TV trays – that attached to his wheelchair. It took several months for the trays to arrive, and once they were installed, it was quickly apparent they weren’t going to work. The trays were unstable, and it didn’t solve the original problem of providing him with an adequate workspace that would allow him to work with large hardware.
“I couldn’t work with computers on that table,” he said.
Worse yet, the remote for the automatic doors malfunctioned once he started, and it took four months for the store to replace it, he adds.
He was increasingly confined to the back of the store where he performed repairs, unable to interact with customers. Eventually, the store installed new tables but they still failed to meet the height requirement.
The next day would be his final one at the Apple Store. During his final conversation with management last July, he said he was told the tables and the automatic doors were “Apple’s answer to sustainability”.
Apple declined to automate the four remaining doors due to the added expense, noted a Dec. 17 press release from Monkhouse Law, Shaw’s legal representation.
Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Shaw said, for months, he felt like he was becoming an inconvenience to the rest of the employees at the store.
But he was convinced that he shouldn’t have had to feel that way.
“For a long time I felt like I was asking for too much and becoming a burden for the store,” he said, after describing the moment he finally decided enough was enough after management told him not to expect things to change.
“These aren’t things I should be asking for. That’s how I felt.”
In addition to shooting pains in his hands from the improper ergonomics that he’s had to treat with physiotherapy, the constant back-and-forth with management led to significant stress.
The stress has been reduced now that his story is public, said Shaw. The support from friends and family has been encouraging. But questioning his place at the store and feeling like a burden on others is not something he’s experienced elsewhere.
“I personally didn’t have that experience anywhere other than working with Apple,” he said.
But disability discrimination in the workplace is not only prevalent, but it’s also acceptable, according to half of Canadians. Half of the respondents in a 2015 survey by the Angus Reid Institute and the Rick Hansen Foundation noted that “it’s understandable” if businesses feel it’s risky to hire employees with disabilities.
Tech companies specifically have earned a reputation for being unwelcoming to those with disabilities and health issues. In 2015 The New York Times reported that multiple Amazon employees were given low-performance reviews or put on “performance improvement plans” after having cancer or significant surgeries. These plans are often a precursor to being fired.
There are 2.3 million people of all disability types in the Canadian labour force, according to Statistics Canada. More than 1 million of them have mobility issues.
Toronto employment lawyer Michael Cohen said Shaw’s story is a familiar one. He has been involved with similar cases, some involving the tech industry. Some of those stories are “crushing.”
“I’ve had a number of clients that have measured their – whether we want to say this is the right way to view things or not – self-worth largely by their contributions at the workplace,” he explains. “When that’s removed for something that is out of your control, beyond your means, you can struggle with that for a long time. It can be crushing to an individual. Some individuals require therapy, and sometimes they suffer a trauma that they never really get over.”
Shaw’s Claim also states that a senior manager told him at Apple that he wouldn’t be promoted if he continued to be unhappy in his role. The manager then allegedly suggested the company might not be the right place for him.
Cohen said Apple would have to focus its efforts on convincing everyone that the installation of new doors would have led to added risk or some physical burden on the store’s other employees if that’s the argument they make.
“I also don’t see how putting a handicapped symbol or button on a wall being aesthetically unpleasing. It’s efficient to get around the obligation to accommodate, mainly if it’s being raised that the remote is not working. If the accommodation that was once provided is repeatedly failing and there’s another option that’s used almost universally, I don’t know how one can argue that’s undue hardship.
“Often I find when I’m talking to a human resources department, I’ll tell them the human rights code says you have to accommodate to the point of undue hardship…and in some instances we’ll get into a disagreement about what constitutes undue hardship in that particular case.”
Shaw’s defence told the publication that they’ve received a notice of intent to defend and a statement of defence.