When the removal of a tumour on his optic nerve in 2013 left him blind in one eye, Cst. Michael Jaszczyszyn was told he would never return to active duty again. But he didn't let policy seal his fate. He spent almost three years setting a precedent that changed how the RCMP assesses its visual standards.
Jaszczyszyn lost one sixth of his peripheral vision and initially struggled with depth perception. When he returned to work in 2014, it was to a new position offered to him under the RCMP's duty to accommodate people with disabilities.
"I love being a cop and I couldn't accept sitting at a desk for the rest of my career," he says.
Jaszczyszyn took all the standard RCMP recertification courses and a gamut of additional police training, most of it at the instructor level. He completed the majority with top scores.
To improve his depth perception, which the eyes detect within a one-metre span, Jaszczyszyn strategically trained in disciplines that focused on close-range skills, such as precision-shooting, firearm handling, handcuffing, and grappling.
He says the training helped his eye adapt to the vision loss, to a degree that didn't impact his ability to do the job of an active duty officer. He has a medical certificate confirming it.
But, as outlined in the RCMP's Health Services Manual, the medical profile of an officer with monocular vision — vision in only one eye — restricts them from being fully operational. At the time, the assessment process didn't allow exceptions.
But Jaszczyszyn set out to prove he was the exception. In a grievor's rebuttal, he argued that the RCMP's rationale was "outdated and unjustifiably discriminatory" and that each case should be examined uniquely instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach.
"There was no evidence to support that all individuals with monocular vision will have these limitations," says Jaszczyszyn. "Some people are able to fully adapt to the point that their limitations are not a hindrance and I demonstrated that I'm one of them."
"We'd never seen a case like this before," says Dr. Josée Pilon, the RCMP's national medical advisor. Her unit conducted a year-long review of the force's standards on monocular vision.
"This is not the accepted practice in a lot of policing organizations, national or international, so there was intensive consultation with experts and the scientific community."
In June 2017, three years after he returned to work, Jaszczyszyn was finally told his argument was found to have merit and he would be allowed to return to active duty.
"We had to look at what scientific evidence is out there and challenge our occupational standards so that we're always following best practices and evolving," says Pilon.
While the standard on visual acuity remains the same, a monocular exception is now in place. Each case is now individually assessed. The underlying causes of the disability, whether there's been adaptation and the remaining visual functions, are now taken into account.
"The diagnosis does not define the person. You also have to look at their abilities," says Pilon. "Some people reprogram their brain to operate on other visual cues and develop skills, such as subtle head movements, where the eye compensates for the loss of vision."
Today, Jaszczyszyn works general duty at Stony Plain detachment, one of the busiest in Alberta. A handful of others like him have been able to return to active duty since the change in policy.
When an officer becomes temporarily or permanently disabled, whether physically or mentally, the RCMP's primary goal is to support and retain its officers, according to Tamara Morriss, acting director of the Disability Management and Accommodation Program.
She says when an officer can't continue to perform their duties because of an illness, injury or disability, the RCMP searches for another existing position that matches their skill-set and experience. Depending on availability, that could mean relocating to another city or province.