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Human rights fight in B.C. as Shoppers, Walmart resist drug labels for blind

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VANCOUVER - A British Columbia group has filed human rights complaints against two major retailers for refusing to provide prescription-bottle labels that allow blind people to hear critical dosage information with the use of a special device.

Access for Sight Impaired Consumers has filed separate cases with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal against Walmart Canada and Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. (TSX:SC), accusing both companies of discriminatory practices affecting blind or partially sighted people.

Group spokesman Rob Sleath said it has been asking Walmart since April 2013 to provide a program it already uses in the United States but that the company has so far not indicated whether that will happen.

Shoppers Drug Mart has refused to comply with repeated requests since 2006, Sleath said, adding that even some pharmacists are dumbfounded when asked why information on various pill bottles and sheets of paper handed out at the counter isn't available to people who can't see.

"It's a no-brainer. We're expected to go home and keep (the bottles) all organized and remember which drug we take how and when and what to watch out for in terms of side effects. None of that information is available to us."

Sleath, 59, lost his sight 22 years ago because of complications from diabetes.

He recently mixed up two types of insulin and learned first hand the dangers of not being able to read the labels.

"I took the wrong type of insulin and too much of it and ended up in the emergency department at 2 o'clock in the morning."

One woman Sleath knows takes 18 different medications and tries to distinguish the bottles by placing them in order on the bathroom counter or putting rubber bands or string around them.

"I said, 'That's just not good enough.'"

Special prescription-bottle labels have a chip encoded with a patient's information. Blind or partially sighted people — and even seniors and those with learning disabilities — can place the bottle on a device that reads aloud all the information to ensure they're taking the medication as prescribed.

A company called Envision America provides patients with the readers, Sleath said.

He said two other pharmacies in B.C. — Overwaitea Foods and People's Drug Mart — have started using the special-label program since Sleath approached them, but Shoppers and Walmart continue to dispense medications to print-impaired customers using only written labels and verbal instructions from pharmacists.

"We've been absolutely stunned by the wall of resistance and pushback that we've received from these two particular organizations. We've been talking to several pharmacies but these two in particular just don't seem to get it."

Nitya Iyer, a lawyer representing Sleath's group, said the hope is for Walmart and Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies to start using special labels to help blind people across Canada.

She said the fact that Walmart isn't using its existing program in Canada "makes it even more stunning."

Peter Archibald, a Vancouver lawyer representing Walmart, referred a call for comment to the company's Toronto public relations department, which did not provide a response.

Shoppers Drug Mart spokeswoman Tammy Smitham said there's no merit to the complaint.

"Each associate-owned store has adopted customer-centred pharmacy practices to facilitate customer understanding and safe, effective use of prescription and (over-the-counter) medication."

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal screens applications to decide if they will be accepted or if complaints can be resolved through mediation or a hearing.

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