Stigma & Sensitivities: Must They Coexist?

Those with environmental sensitivities look like others do but their bodies react differently to substances like automobile exhaust, mould, fragrance, tobacco smoke and pesticides. While reactions vary, neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety and difficulties with coordination, memory and concentration are almost universal. Symptoms like these strongly impact employability.

Though the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions formally recognize environmental sensitivities as a disability, people tend to respond differently to those with non-evident disabilities than they do to visibly-disabled persons. What happens when accommodating the needs of someone with a non-evident disability involves personal sacrifice? 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 fragrance.

Say a scent-sensitive person wishes to attend a function and asks someone attending to please reduce or refrain from wearing a fragrance that has made them ill before. The person may be outraged that someone would presume to suggest what they can and cannot wear. Why should they change their personal habits? They may feel controlled and suggest the person making the request has an overly developed sense of self-importance. They may delegitimize the person and trivialize their concerns by suggesting the disability is psychosomatic. Thus they rationalize their decision to wear fragrance anyway.

And what of the person with the disability? As they struggle to come to terms with being exposed to fragrance in virtually every indoor environment, as they grieve the loss of rights and freedoms, do they lash out? Most likely. When everything from buying eggs to going to work becomes complicated by fragrance sensitivity, do they talk about it too often? Perhaps they speak out while anxious or disoriented from a fragrance reaction. How sensitive are they when they make their request? Yet, how can a request for someone to alter personal care habits be sensitive?

Actually, the person making the request may feel as uncomfortable as the person being asked. 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 unwilling to resign themselves to a life of either sickness or isolation, may repeatedly 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 sensitivities.

Going back to our hypothetical situation, is the refusal to accommodate the request, the equivalent of a person placing a barrier across a wheelchair ramp and then going in to enjoy the function while the person with the disability sits alone outside? No, 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, in one situation, a person creates a physical barrier, whereas, in the other, a person creates a chemical barrier by wearing fragrance.

Some might suggest that the person with environmental illness can still attend. But, if they do, they may be ill for 2-3 days. Should they wear a mask? A mask impedes breathing and talking which can compound feelings of alienation. Others may not know how to respond 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, “about one-third of the Canadian population is sensitive to fragrances,” according to Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Will society continue to ignore the needs of those with sensitivities? Are we to fight the good fight 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


Canadian Human Rights Commission, Accommodating Environmental Sensitivities: State of Knowledge, Balancing Conflicting Interests, see introductory section and Section 4:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 6: Typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals (and may contribute to initiation of environmental sensitivities):

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 7: Environmental sensitivity symptoms/reactions:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, What are “environmental sensitivities”?, Summary:

Dalhousie University, History of Dal’s Scent-Free Program

Dalhousie University, Questions & Answers:

Dalhousie University, Statement on the Use of Scented Products:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, 2.2 A broader approach to understanding disability: a social perspective:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 4.1.1, Respect for Dignity:

The Environmental Illness Resource, Secondary Reactions and Effects of Having MCS, excerpted from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD:

Women’s Health Matters, Why Fragrance Free Works at Work:

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