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Exclusive club in Toronto fined $35K for telling man with autism he required supervision at all times

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The family of a prominent Toronto artist with autism is speaking out after one of the city’s oldest private clubs demanded he be supervised at all times while using the facilities – a decision that prompted the artist to file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The Granite Club, a private athletics club located in North York, told 20-year-old Niam Jain he would require supervision while using the facility after a 2020 incident between Jain and another club member in one of the facility's locker rooms. Jain says the club’s investigation of the incident and subsequent findings needlessly robbed him of his dignity.

Jain and his mother, Nina, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. A recent decision handed down by the tribunal sides with the Jain family, stating the club failed to accommodate the artist’s disability – largely because its staff misunderstood a common autistic behaviour.

“We felt this was undermining all of his achievements, his hard work, and his efforts to be independent,” Nina said.

Jain had been attending the club for two years before the aforementioned incident.

On Feb. 10, 2020, club member Andrew Gage testified he found Jain touching his bag in the locker room. Gage said he asked him to stop and accused Jain of crude behaviour.

The adjudicator found the bag was in the place where Jain usually placed his bag as part of his routine while changing clothes, and Jain was mistaken in acting as if it was his bag.

But Jain could not speak to explain himself to Gage and became anxious “when confronted by Gage’s angry questioning,” the adjudicator said. That is when the young man started making a sound “like he was going to spit” and went to shower.

The adjudicator found that was a common autistic behaviour and Gage’s suggestion that anything was crude was “disproportionate to the applicant’s behaviours,” the adjudicator said. 

Another member testified he heard Gage loudly question Jain for about a minute and worried that there would be “some kind of altercation.”

According to the judgment, Gage told a manager that “he and other members pay way too much money to have this kind of thing happen in the locker room” and said if it continued he would go to the police.

The club investigated, hearing from the members, staff, and the Jain family. The Jains proposed other accommodations, like signage and a bench that Jain could go to as part of his routine that wouldn’t accidentally impact other club members.

The club decided it would minimize the risk of anything similar happening by requiring Jain to be under supervision at all times while patroning the club.

The Jain family says this was a discriminatory response, and subsequently launched a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal.

The family had initially been granted anonymity in the proceeding, but chose to do an interview in the hopes that publicizing the case would remind organizations of their obligations to accommodate disabilities and make a difference for people with autism.

In the judgment, the adjudicator found the club prioritized appeasing “one angry member” who said he and other members “pay way too much money to have this kind of thing happen in the locker room,” the decision says.

The club should revoke the requirement for Jain to have a caregiver, put in other accommodations for Jain such as signage and a new locker room bench, improve its human rights training and pay the maximum damages of $35,000, the adjudicator found.

The Granite Club told CTV News in a statement it is “firmly committed to providing an inclusive space to all members of our community and intends to fully comply with the steps outlined in the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario’s decision.”

“We are currently finalizing plans to address the concerns raised throughout this process so that the club’s differently abled community always feels welcome,” Mary Elizabeth Sullivan, the club’s chief executive officer, told CTV News Toronto.

Requiring someone with a disability to do more is an inversion of the responsibility of a venue according to Ontario’s Human Rights Code, said one of Jain’s lawyers, Jenna Bontorin.

“Imposing this requirement was really a rush to judgment and was based on discriminatory conclusions, and stripped him of his autonomy,” Bontorin said.

Accommodating someone with a disability must amount to more than managing risk, adjudicator Romona Gananathan said, saying that education about autism should have been part of the club’s response.

Jain expresses himself through “stims,” which are repetitive soothing behaviours that can be misinterpreted by others, she said. They can include sounds like clearing his throat and repetitive actions like rocking, hand-flapping, flicking fingers and making noises.

“What was misinterpreted as sexualized behaviour in the men’s locker room was, in my view, nothing more than the applicant stimming in response to Gage’s verbally threatening behaviour,” she wrote.

“The caregiver requirement is not an accommodation sought or requested by the applicant but one that was imposed by the respondent based on its own need to appease an angry member,” Gananathan wrote.

The ruling should be a clear lesson to other organizations to listen carefully and investigate fully when presented with someone who needs accommodation, said another of Jain’s lawyers, Brian Greenspan.

“The problem was perpetuating the myth that we know best, we know how to organize your life better than you know how to organize your life,” said Greenspan.

The decision is an inspiration because of the courage it took for this family to stand up to the powerful and underscore the importance of accommodating all kinds of differences, Marg Spoelstra of Autism Ontario, said.

“Autistic folks sometimes present in ways that are puzzling to people. But it’s the nature of autism for certain individuals. We have to get to know what it means to be human, the full extent of it,” she said.

“There’s no reason to exclude someone because they may be behaving awkwardly. That’s a powerful message,” she said.

The Granite Club is a private family, athletic and social club founded in 1875 with about 11,000 members, located near Toronto’s Bridle Path neighbourhood.

The Jain family joined the club in 2008 when Niam Jain was about 6 years old.

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