Equality Act & Stammering: New Challenges of Coronavirus

Woman at a computer

Social distancing for Coronavirus can present particular issues for people who stammer at work or looking for jobs. Allan Tyrer, creator of the website stammeringlaw.org.uk, fills us in.

In important ways people who stammer are lucky as regards the Coronavirus – stammering as such is not one of the listed conditions placing them at particular risk from the virus. However the move away from meeting face-to-face can create particular difficulties if you have a stammer. 

Stammering is often a 'disability' within the Equality Act. Very broadly, the Act makes disability discrimination unlawful and includes a duty for employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. However with Coronavirus, the Act is now applying to new situations, and what is reasonable under the Act will be affected.

It is very early days, but in this altered world how may the Equality Act apply to job interviews, working in a job and services including health services?

Job interviews

More interviews are taking place remotely over the phone or through video calls. Many people who stammer find this more difficult than face-to-face interviews. 

Normally it might be a reasonable adjustment to have a face-to-face interview instead of a remote interview, or perhaps waive the person through an initial telephone screening interview. However with current (late March 2020) public health advice and requirements, a face-to-face interview may well be unreasonable. Also waiving the person through is not feasible if it is the main interview.

Some – but not all – people who stammer may be OK with a Skype or Zoom interview (with any other reasonable adjustments they require), since being able to see the other person can help. Other adjustments under the Equality Act, including longer time for the interview, will often be reasonable for a remote interview, video or not. This BBC article suggests that people should practice ahead of an online interview because it is a completely different experience from interviewing in person. 

Alternatively it may not be reasonable to insist that someone does a remote oral interview. It might be a reasonable adjustment to allow him or her to give written responses to questions instead (or perhaps as well). This is because even allowing a longer time for the remote oral interview and other adjustments to it may not put the person on a level playing field with other candidates – eg s/he may not be able to give enough in-depth experiences and examples. 

In the job

In many cases the Coronavirus is changing how jobs are done in ways that may be challenging for a person who stammers. An obvious example is having to make more phone calls or video conference calls rather than speaking face-to-face.

My stammeringlaw website linked below suggests possible reasonable adjustments for these, including steps which may make them easier, or perhaps in some cases re-allocating duties. 

Also, say a lecturer has to produce new video materials so that students can learn remotely. It should be fine that the lecturer sometimes stammers in these.

Services

Communication by phone is now more common.

For example GP surgeries and hospital clinics have started holding appointments over the phone. This may be difficult for a person who stammers, so a reasonable adjustment could be to offer a face-to-face appointment with appropriate precautions, or in writing online over a secure messaging system. Another option is a video call if the particular person would find that easier.

Because the reasonable adjustment duty for service providers is anticipatory, they should consider possible adjustments for different kinds of disability in advance of the particular disabled person presenting themself. However, with the Coronavirus a certain time lag in sorting this out may be reasonable, because of the speed with which it has been necessary to introduce measures. 

My stammeringlaw website

This article is a cut-down version of the Coronavirus page on my stammeringlaw website as at the time of writing: www.stammeringlaw.org.uk/coronavirus-covid-19/. That page has links filling out more of the detail. Also it is early days, so these are just initial thoughts. I will be updating that page both as my thoughts progress, and as other developments happen. So please do visit.

Disclaimer: The above is a broad summary and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice.

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