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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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Last updated 29th March, 2024.

Social distancing for the Covid-19 sometimes presented extra challenges for people who stammer.

The move away from meeting face-to-face due to social distancing requirements (below) sometimes created particular difficulties if one has a stammer. Equality Act (EqA) obligations still applied, but they were applying to new situations. What was reasonable or justifiable was potentially affected by Covid-19.

In this altered world how may the EqA and similar duties have applied to job interviews, working in a job, services including health services, and so on?

Job interviews

More interviews were being done remotely Coronavirus: Job interviews go online as candidates stuck at home (bbc.co.uk), 16/3/20. Many people who stammer found these more difficult than face-to-face interviews. See my section on Telephone or video interviews and on remote oral assessments.

Glasson v The Insolvency Service, EAT, 2024
The claimant was interviewed for promotion by video conference during the Covid-19 pandemic. The claimant said this exacerbated the effects of his stammer. The tribunal, upheld by the EAT, held that using video conference rather than face-to-face was justified due to the pandemic.
Note: Even so, reasonable adjustments should be considered to mitigate the effect of the stammer. The reasonable adjustment claim in that case failed due to the the employer not knowing of the relevant disadvatage, ie that he was liable to limit his answers.

Even during the pandemic, it might sometimes have been 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 was common. Particularly if the interviewers themselves were working from home, an employer might have argued that in the pandemic a face-to-face interview was not reasonable. The following assumes there was 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 EqA. 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 who does not take this into account may find it all the more difficult to justify their decisions under the EqA.

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.

Written answers?

For some interviewees it may not be reasonable to insist that they do a remote oral interview (if face-to-face was unreasonable). 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, as happened in the Wakefield case (at the ‘written responses’ link above). Glasson v The Insolvency Service, 2024, is another case where the claimant limited his answers due to his stammer.

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 changed how jobs were done in ways that could be challenging for someone who stammers.

An obvious example was 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 often took 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.

The EqA 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.

Health services

See Examples of adjustments and discrimination: service providers>Health services.

Face coverings

I’ve taken offline, as no longer relevant, my page on wearing a face mask or face covering.

Face coverings can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk or be understood. However, the regulations requiring face coverings to be worn had exceptions that might apply to stammering. Also, the reasonable adjustment duty, and other EqA provisions, could potentially apply if an employer, service provider or university, say, required the wearing of a face covering, where this created difficulty with speech.

Courts

Courts moved to much greater use of remote audio and video links for hearings, due to Covid-19, and this has continued after the pandemic. However, it should be done in a way which takes stammering and other disabilities into account. See Appearing in court>Remote hearings.

Police enforcement

In the pandemic – and generally – if you were 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 EqA. They are required not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments.

Stammering as effect of Long Covid

On this see Disability: Stammering starting in adulthood>Long Covid.

20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019