Social distancing for the coronavirus can present extra challenges for people who stammer.
In important ways people who stammer are lucky as regards Covid-19 – 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 due to social distancing requirements (below) can create particular difficulties if one has a stammer. Equality Act obligations still apply, but they are applying to new situations, and what is reasonable or justifiable will be affected by the coronavirus.
- wearing a face mask or face covering, including in public transport and shops as well as at work, and
A student is looking for people to take part in her research project on How has social distancing affected people who stammer? (stamma.org), Sept 2020.
More interviews are being done remotely Coronavirus: Job interviews go online as candidates stuck at home (bbc.co.uk), 16th March. Many people who stammer find these more difficult than face-to-face interviews. See my section on Telephone or video interviews.
Normally 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 even with the further easing of the lockdown in England from 1st August, businesses have to do risk assessments as to how far it is safe for staff to return to work and discuss this with staff: Working safely during coronavirus (gov.uk). Some places are largely continuing to work from home at present. Particularly if the interviewers themselves are still working from home, an employer may argue a face-to-face interview is still not reasonable at the moment. Also waiving the person through is not feasible if it is the main 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 for a face-to-face interview) but more adjustments may well be required.
Also, even more than for a face-to-face interview (see Assessment of oral skills in recruitment), 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 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).
It may not be reasonable to insist that the particular person does a remote oral interview. It might be a reasonable adjustment to allow him 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 him on a level playing field with other candidates. For example, due to the stammer he may limit what he says so that he fails 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.
In the job
Covid-19 is changing how many 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 now homeworking, 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 now often take 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.
Workers required to wear a face covering by their employer, if this gives a problem with speech, are discussed on a separate page.
In deciding whether it is justified under the Equality Act to take action against (perhaps ultimately dismiss) a person because the employer considers their stammer is creating difficulties with the new way of working, even after all reasonable adjustments have been made, it should be relevant whether the new way of working is only temporary rather than permanent.
The Equality Act employment provisions including the duty to make reasonable adjustments are not limited to ’employment’. For example they sometimes apply in the gig economy: Employees, workers and beyond.
The government temporarily meeting up to 80% of wages of those put on “furlough” under the Coronavirus job retention scheme (gov.uk) has hopefully reduced redundancy. Even so, a substantial number of workers face being made redundant. For what it’s worth, the Equality Act applies to selection of who is made redundant: Losing one’s job>Redundancy.
Services, including health
Again communication by phone is now more common.
Example: A GP surgery or hospital clinic starts holding its 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 a video call if the particular person would find that easier, or face-to-face with appropriate precautions (like at the dentist now), or online over a secure messaging system.
Note: doctors may use video conferencing but will wish to choose a secure system: NHS doctors told not to use Zoom for video calls with patients (telegraph.co.uk), 22 April.
As regards the emergency services, if you’re not happy you could speak to them (especially if breathing is difficult with the 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.
See Face coverings and stammering>Health services on hospitals:
- requiring outpatients and visitors to wear a face covering and similar for GPs, and
- allowing someone to accompany a patient who stammers.
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. Wearing a face covering is legally required on public transport and in shops etc in England, but with some exemptions. Also some other businesses and organisations require visitors or customers to wear a face covering. See Face coverings and stammering.
Police may enforce various measures. In England these include:
- the “rule of six”. From 14th September, gatherings of more than six people are a criminal offence in England unless they fall within listed exceptions: SI 2020/684. There are also stricter local restrictions (gov.uk) in some parts of England;
- the legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport or in shops etc unless one has a reasonable excuse;
- the legal requirement for travellers from abroad (gov.uk) to self-isolate for 14 days subject to exceptions.
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, the police are generally covered by the Equality Act. They should not discriminate and should make reasonable adjustments.
As regards guidance rather than the legal requirements, such as keeping a distance from anyone not in the same household (even if you are both in a gathering allowed under the regulations), see below Links on social distancing requirements.
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
Links on stammering and coronavirus
- Project: How has social distancing affected people who stammer? (stamma.org), Sept 2020 – a student is looking for people to take part in her research project on this
- My speech during the pandemic (stamma.org), July 2020
- Stammering under lockdown (stamma.org), June 2020 – survey results
- Living with a stammer in lockdown (stamma.org), May 2020
- I’ve been focussing on the positives and small wins to help me through my days (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
- 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 (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, sign language interpreter for daily coronavirus briefings, 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.