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Equality law and stammering in outline

This page gives a broad overview of the Equality Act 2010 as it applies to disability, with particular reference to stammering.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 from October 2010.

It protects a 'disabled person' against discrimination in various areas of life, including employment, provision of services, public functions, and education.

As well as disability, the Equality Act covers discrimination in relation to various other 'protected characteristics', such as sex, race, religion and age. This website only deals with disability.

Territorial extent

The Equality Act applies in England, Wales and Scotland. It does not apply in Northern Ireland, which has somewhat different disability discrimination legislation. See Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Stammering as a 'disability'

To be protected, the stammer normally needs to be a 'disability' as defined in the Equality Act. Broadly, the person must have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, such as having a phone conversation. 'Substantial' means only 'more than minor or trivial'.

The test is not difficult for a stammer to meet. However, where it is disputed, it is for the claimant to show the stammer has the required substantial effect. There are also more detailed rules which can be helpful, as they often widen the basic definition of disability. Statutory guidance specifically gives an example of stammering:

"...A man has had a stammer since childhood. He does not stammer all the time, but his stammer, particularly in telephone calls, goes beyond the occasional lapses in fluency found in the speech of people who do not have the impairment. However, this effect can often be hidden by his avoidance strategies. He tries to avoid making or taking telephone calls where he believes he will stammer, or he does not speak as much during the calls. He sometimes tries to avoid stammering by substituting words, or by inserting extra words or phrases.
"In these cases there are substantial adverse effects on the person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day communication activities."
Para D17 of the 2011 Statutory Guidance on definition of Disability.

Even if a person does not have a 'disability' as defined, he or she may have some rights under the Equality Act if perceived to have a disability.

More: Is the stammer a disability? Also, there have been quite a few cases on stammering.

Types of discrimination

There are a range of different types of claim under the Equality Act.

For some types, the employer or service provider etc has a defence if they can show their action was objectively justified. For other types, such as 'direct discrimination' and harassment, there is no justification defence.

A particularly important type of claim is the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Claims outside of the Equality Act may also be important, such as unfair dismissal.

More: What is discrimination?.

Employment

There are rules limiting how far a disabled person can be treated less favourably for a reason related to their disability. The rules apply not only to recruitment but also to such matters as promotion, training, and dismissal.

An employer refuses to promote a factory worker who stammers. The new role would be customer-facing, and the employer does not think that with their stammer the person would be able to communicate well with customers. This may be unlawful discrimination. If the justification defence is available, it will be for the employer to show that its decision is objectively justified - in particular that the decision is 'proportionate'.

Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate a disabled person, both on recruitment and in the job itself. For example:

An employer allows a person who stammers longer for a job interview, and perhaps takes account of information in the person's written application even though they have not said it in the interview.
(This is just an example. What adjustments are appropriate will depend on the particular case.)

Others in the office initially answer any incoming phone calls (if the person who stammers wants this). Only calls for the person who stammers are put through to her.

Harassment is also unlawful.

Colleagues make fun of someone's stammer at an office party. This is likely to be unlawful harassment. The individuals involved as well as the employer can be liable.

S.60 Equality Act restricts employers' entitlement to ask questions on health and disability before making a job offer.

More: Employment.

Provision of goods, services and facilities

Shops, businesses, local authorities, and pretty much anyone else providing goods, services and facilities to the public ('service providers') are prohibited from discriminating against disabled people. This applies even if the services are provided for free. The main exception relates to some aspects of transport on aircraft or ships.

A restaurant puts the phone down on someone who stammers trying to book a table. This will normally be unlawful discrimination.

A bank insists on sorting out a problem over the telephone, rather than using an alternative method such as the internet or face-to-face. This may be unlawful discrimination where a person's stammer makes it difficult for them to have this sort of conversation on the phone.

An organisation changes its main switchboard to an automatic voice recognition system. A person who stammers cannot get the computer to understand what they are saying. They are not given a prompt opportunity to speak to a real person. This may be unlawful.

More: Provision of goods and services.

There are separate rules for private members clubs, which restrict membership and so are not providing services to the public.

Education

Generally

Schools, colleges, universities etc are subject to the Equality Act. The Act can also include non-educational aspects of school or college life. For schools, the special educational needs (SEN) framework may be more important than the Equality Act in practice.

A student is not offered the opportunity of taking part in a debate, because of their stammer. This may be a breach of the Equality Act. If needed, reasonable adjustments could be considered to enable the student to take part.

More: Education.

Exams

The Equality Act can also apply to examinations and assessments, There are separate rules for

For example, it may be a reasonable adjustment for a student to be allowed extra time for an oral exam or presentation.

Public authorities

In general the normal rules on this page apply to public authorities, including the rules on employment, provision of services, and education. However there are some additional rules which will often apply to them:

Public functions

Some activities of public authorities, eg a police arrest, are not a provision of services. Even so, they will normally be covered by similar rules on exercise of public functions.

Police interrogating a suspect who stammers keep butting in as he is trying to speak. This may be unlawful under the Equality Act.

Public sector equality duty (PSED)

There is also a Public Sector Equality Duty which seeks to build disability equality into the culture of public authorities. Decision-making should take adequate account of disability issues.

In deciding what services to fund or cut, a Government department, or local authority, should have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled people (and various other 'statutory needs').

Official regulators (whether of telecoms, or care homes, etc) should have due regard to needs of people with communication disabilities where appropriate.

Professional/trade organisations and unions - not dealt with on this website

Bodies such as trade unions, employers organisations and professional institutions are subject to the Equality Act. They are not allowed to discriminate against potential or actual members. I do not deal with these rules further on my website.

For the law before October 2010 the Revised Code of Practice: Trade Organisations, Qualifications Bodies and General Qualifications Bodies (link to DERA website) (2008) is available. It has examples specifically about speech impairments at paras 5.12 (mentoring) and 7.13 (written interview instead of oral).

I do have a page though on the rules prohibiting disability discrimination in relation to trade and professional qualifications. This affects bodies such as the General Medical Council, or Public Carriage Office.

Selling, letting or managing premises - not dealt with on this website

Landlords and others are not allowed to discriminate against disabled people in various ways as regards selling, letting and management of accommodation and other premises.

I do not deal with this further on the website.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

This took over the role of the Disability Rights Commission from October 2007. It also replaced the other equality bodies and took on new strands of discrimination, making it a 'single equality commission'. Its website is www.equalityhumanrights.com. However it no longer has a helpline - this has been taken over by the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS).

For more, see Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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Last updated 21st December, 2016