Social distancing for the Covid-19 can present extra challenges for people who stammer.
The move away from meeting face-to-face due to social distancing requirements (below) has sometimes created particular difficulties if one has a stammer. Equality Act obligations still apply, but they have been applying to new situations. What is reasonable or justifiable is – or at least was – potentially affected by Covid-19, though this should be less so now with governments relaxing restrictions.
More interviews are being done remotely Coronavirus: Job interviews go online as candidates stuck at home (bbc.co.uk), 16th March 2020. Many people who stammer find these more difficult than face-to-face interviews. See my section on Telephone or video interviews and on remote oral assessments.
It might be a reasonable adjustment to have a face-to-face interview instead of a phone/remote interview, or perhaps waive the person through an initial screening interview by phone. However working from home is still common. Particularly if the interviewers themselves are working from home, an employer may argue that a face-to-face interview is not reasonable. But a person who stammers (at least in England) might argue that a face-to-face interview is now reasonable, given the government no longer advises people to work from home. On 19th January 2022 the government withdrew its previous advice for office workers to work from home if possible: below Links on social distancing guidance in England. Whether there are any considerations that make a face-to-face interview unreasonable in the particular case will of course depend on the circumstances. The following assumes there is not a face-to-face interview.
Skype or Zoom?
Some – though not all – people who stammer may be OK with a Skype or Zoom interview (plus any other reasonable adjustments they require), as it can help to be able to see the other person. Interviewers may prefer this visual format anyway.
For any remote interview, video or not, other adjustments will often be reasonable under the Equality Act. The most obvious is a longer time for the interview (perhaps more than if the interview is face-to-face) but further adjustments may well be required.
Also, even more than for a face-to-face interview (see Oral assessments in recruitment>Interview: Not an appropriate way to assess oral skills), I’d say employers should bear in mind that a person’s speech in a remote interview is not a reliable guide to how they will communicate in the job. An employer which does not take this into account may find it all the more difficult to justify their decisions under the Equality Act.
The BBC article above suggests that interviewees practice ahead of a video online interview because it is a completely different experience from interviewing in person. One tip from US speech therapist Tim Mackesey is to set up a mirror: Success with online interviewing (youtube).
See further my section on Telephone or video interviews.
For some interviewees it may not be reasonable to insist that they do a remote oral interview. It might be a reasonable adjustment to allow a person to give written responses to questions instead of (or perhaps as well as) a remote oral interview. Allowing a longer time for the remote oral interview and other adjustments to it may not be enough to put the individual on a level playing field with other candidates. For example, due to the stammer the person may limit what they say so that they fail to show in-depth experiences and examples (see the Wakefield case at the ‘written responses’ link above).
Written responses might be given remotely, eg by email or perhaps an online chat facility, provided the person is given sufficient time to write a normal full response. Oral follow-up questions, eg by video link, might be considered.
Remote oral assessments
I discuss oral assessments by Zoom etc – such as online group discussion exercises – at Oral assessments in recruitment>Remote assessments (Zoom etc).
In the job
In many cases Covid-19 has been changing how jobs are done in ways that may be challenging for someone who stammers.
An obvious example is more phone calls rather than speaking face-to-face. My website suggests possible reasonable adjustments for telephone calls including steps which may make them easier, or perhaps re-allocating duties. You may actually find phone calls easier if you’re working from home, because you are on your own when phoning, rather than in a more public open plan office.
There are also possible reasonable adjustments for video conferences and conference calls, which have often taken the place of face-to-face meetings. A person who stammers may prefer one format over the other:
Example: A team is working from home. The boss proposes they have a team meeting via telephone conference call. This is changed to a video conference at the request of a member of the team who stammers. He prefers video conferences because if he pauses then other members of the team can see if it is because he is stammering, so they know not to interrupt. (He may also find it easier to speak if he can see the other people).
A further example on remote working:
Example: 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.
The university may also require that a text alternative is produced to make the lecture accessible to people with hearing impairments. If the AI software used to automatically generate the text alternative cannot cope with the lecturer’s stammer, it may be a reasonable adjustment for the university to have another member of staff produce the text alternative, so that the lecturer does not have to spend extra hours doing this.
Workers required to wear a face covering by their employer, if this gives a problem with speech, are discussed on a separate page.
The Equality Act employment provisions including the duty to make reasonable adjustments are not limited to “employment”. For example they often apply to “self-employed” workers in the gig economy: Employees, workers and beyond.
For what it’s worth, the Equality Act applies to selection of who is made redundant: Losing one’s job>Redundancy. For example, as discussed at that link, any competence assessment should not be discriminatory.
Services, including health
Again communication by phone is now more common. However service providers have an Equality Act obligation to make reasonable adjustments.
Example: A GP surgery or hospital clinic is now holding many appointments over the phone. Where this does not work for a person who stammers, it may well be a reasonable adjustment to offer an alternative, such as face-to-face, or a video call if that works for the individual.
Hospitals etc may also have a policy of not allowing anyone to accompany an outpatient:
It may well be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act to allow someone to accompany an outpatient who stammers, to help communicate what they want to say. I know of a hospital which agreed this. It is sensible to try and agree it in advance.
See Face coverings and stammering>Health services on hospitals etc requiring outpatients and visitors to wear a face covering, if this makes communication too difficult.
As regards the emergency services, if you’re not happy to speak to them (especially if breathing is difficult with Covid-19), you can register with Emergency SMS, preferably in advance. This lets you have a text conversation with the 999 services if you do later need to contact them. See www.emergencysms.net.
For any phone calls (at least if you’re reasonably good at typing) another option is the Relay UK service: www.relayuk.bt.com and on my website Telephone>Relay UK – typing instead of speaking. You type what you want to say and a person, a “Relay Assistant”, will speak it to the other party.
Because the reasonable adjustment duty for service providers and bodies exercising public functions is anticipatory, they should consider possible adjustments for different kinds of disability in advance of the particular disabled person presenting themself.
Face coverings can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk or be understood. Regulations in England no longer require people to wear a face covering, but some businesses and other organisations require customers/patients or visitors etc (or staff) to wear a face covering. Businesses and other organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments. See Face coverings and stammering.
If you are accosted by the police, it may well be a good idea to tell them you have a stammer, for the reasons outlined on my Police page. As described there, police are generally covered by the Equality Act. They are required not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments.
However at least in England, Covid restrictions are no longer imposed by law. As regards guidance – rather than the legal requirements – see also below Links on social distancing in England.
Courts have moved to much greater use of remote audio and video links for hearings, due to Covid-19. This should be done in a way which takes stammering and other disabilities into account. See Courts and Coronavirus.
Links on social distancing guidance in England
- Most relevant for this web page, in England people are now no longer advised to work from home if they can. The previous guidance (not law) for office workers to work from home if possible was withdrawn on 19th January 2022.
- The current guidance for employers in England, from 1st April 2022, deals with respiratory infections generally: Reducing the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19, in the workplace (gov.uk).
- Before 1st April 2022 the main guidance for employers on risk assessments and making workplaces safe was Working safely during Coronavirus (archive of gov.uk at 1 Mar 2022), now withdrawn. For example para 2.1 of the “Working safely” guidance for offices (archive of gov.uk at 2 Mar 2022) said the government no longer asked people to work from home if they can, and talked about arranging return to work.
- Living safely with respiratory infections, including COVID-19 (gov.uk) gives general guidance from 1st April 2022.
Links on stammering and coronavirus
- Covid: challenges, achievements & positives (stamma.org), Nov 2020 and I’ve been focusing on the positives and small wins to help me through my days (stamma.org), May 2020
- ‘My stammer has made 2020 more difficult’ (video, bbc.co.uk), Oct 2020
- The challenges of living with a stammer in lockdown (telegraph.co.uk), October 2020 – nice that it links to this stammeringlaw website at the end
- Relearning how to speak up (dysfluentmagazine.com) in Zoom meetings, September 2020
- My stammer during the Covid-19 pandemic (stamma.org), July 2020
- Stammering under lockdown (stamma.org), June 2020 – survey results
- Living with a stammer in lockdown (stamma.org), May 2020
- The impact of COVID-19 on stammering services (stamma.org), April 2020
- Quarantine is helping me to better understand my stammer (stamma.org), April 2020
- Working from home has pushed me out of my comfort zone (stamma.org), April 2020
- I’m using lockdown as a chance to work on my stammer (stamma.org), April 2020
- Social distancing has challenged me. But I’ll rise to it (stamma.org), April 2020.
Links on disability implications of the coronavirus and social distancing
- R (Rowley) v Minister for the Cabinet Office: BSL interpreters – High Court decision that failure to provide BSL interpreters for Coronavirus data briefings was unlawful discrimination, July 2021
- Coronavirus should not remove Equality Act obligations (reasonableaccess.org.uk), August 2020.
- COVID-19 toolkit (businessdisabilityforum.org.uk) – guide for businesses “about the coronavirus and your disabled employees, customers and clients.”
- Fry Law articles (archive of frylaw.co.uk) – including NHS visitor challenge (including where a disabled person needs to bring someone to help with communication needs), communications inaccessible for blind people, and supermarket arrangements for disabled customers.
- Blind woman issues legal challenge to Government over Covid-19 communications (leighday.co.uk), 7th May.
- Government guidance changed to permit people with specific health needs to exercise outside more than once a day and to travel to do so where necessary (bindmans.com), 8th April 2020, after the government was threatened with a possible judicial review claim in respect of children with autistic spectrum disorder. On the same thing, Government clarifies outdoor exercise limit following JR threat (lawgazette.co.uk), 9th April.
- Rook Irwin Sweeney are acting pro bono for a group of disability campaigners to challenge the failure to publish guidance on how NHS treatment for Covid-19 will be prioritised if demand outstrips supply: https://twitter.com/ris_law/status/1250045950783041537, Coronavirus: Hancock refuses to publish treatment guidance (disabilitynewsservice.com), 23rd April 2020.
- Equality body calls on retailers to do more for disabled customers during corona crisis (equalityhumanrights.com), 7th May 2020. More generally, letter from the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to the Prime Minister: Human rights and equality considerations in responding to the coronavirus pandemic (equalityhumanrights.com), 19th March.
- ‘Women and Equalities Committee inquiry: Unequal impact: Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the impact on people with protected characteristics (parliament.uk).
- The Joint Committee on Human Rights is also scrutinising the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak from a human rights perspective: The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications (gov.uk), 19th March 2020. The Committee Chair published a briefing paper (pdf) on 8th April.