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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 17th August 2020 (part update 24th September 2020).

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.

In this altered world how may the Equality Act and similar duties apply to job interviews, working in a job, services including health services, and so on?

There are separate pages on:

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.

Job interviews

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).

Written answers?

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.

Redundancy

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

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 enforcement

Police may enforce various measures. In England these include:

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

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

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