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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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Last updated 11th July 2020.

Social distancing for the coronavirus can present extra challenges for people who stammer.

Woman putting on face mask.

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.

It is early days, but in this altered world how may the Equality Act and similar duties apply to job interviews, working in a job, services including health services, courts, and so on?

I’ve recently added a section on disability exemptions for face coverings on public transport.

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 easing of the lockdown in England, public health guidance as at early July still recommends social distancing (below) and that people should work from home if possible (Working safely during coronavirus (gov.uk)). An employer may argue a face-to-face interview is still not reasonable at the moment, particularly if the interviewers themselves are working from home. 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; if they do not they 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 a person 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, so that you’re 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.

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 can 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

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, 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.

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.

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.

Face coverings on public transport

Wearing a face covering is now legally required on public transport in England, and in at least some other parts of the UK. Face coverings can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk.

TfL blue card saying "I am exempt from wearing a face covering."
Face coverings on public transport: can stammering justify exemption?

In England the requirement does not apply if one has a “reasonable excuse”, which includes the excuses listed in regulation 4 of SI 2020/592. The main relevant excuse is if one “cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability (within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010”.

Whether or not you might fall within this excuse, wearing a face covering is safer for anyone you are travelling with (including other passengers nearby), and perhaps for yourself, so it’s good to wear one if at all possible.

As to how far this reasonable excuse (in England) applies, a stammer will very often be a disability within s.6 Equality Act, and in any event should be a physical impairment. However the question is whether you “cannot” wear a face covering because of the stammer. Arguably it is not enough that you want to chat to a friend on the bus or train and a face covering makes this more difficult, given that the country is facing a public health crisis. On the other hand there is a specific excuse in regulation 4 for a person travelling with someone who relies on lip reading to communicate. So perhaps an inability to chat with a friend if wearing a face covering might be enough. However even then, the test is whether you “cannot” wear a face covering, so just making talking rather more difficult may not fall within the excuse. (That is my take on the wording but of course others may read it differently.)

The argument for having a reasonable excuse, either under regulation 4 or more generally (see next paragraph on excuses not listed in that regulation), seems stronger if for example

  • you can’t speak as needed to control children if you wear a face covering, or
  • you need to speak to the driver or another staff member and really cannot with a face covering on. Here though you might be able to write instead, eg if asking for a ticket.

Apparently you can have a “reasonable excuse” even if it is not listed in regulation 4. The regulation just says a reasonable excuse includes those listed. This is consistent with guidance to the police, as reported in the Independent:

“The list of reasonable excuses [in regulation 4] is not exhaustive and officers should use their discretion to determine what may be reasonable in the circumstances with which they are presented.” www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-face-mask-uk-fine-police-public-transport-grant-shapps-tube-bus-train-a9567056.html, 15th June

Where a person is believed to be in breach, there are powers to deny boarding, direct them to put on a face covering or leave the transport, or for a constable to remove them. Breaching the regulations is a criminal offence. There is power for police and certain others to issue a fixed penalty notice.

For those who want something to show to indicate they are claiming exemption, Transport for London has a card to print off or show on a phone https://tfl.gov.uk/campaign/face-coverings. The National Rail website links to other options (scroll down to “Supporting customers who are exempt” at the end of the page).

In the case of transport for which face coverings are not a legal requirement, for example taxis in England, operators have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if they have their own rule requiring passengers to wear a face covering. It will then depend on what is reasonable, bearing in mind requirements to keep the driver and other passengers as safe as reasonably possible.

Police enforcement

Police enforcement of the lockdown in England at least has now very substantially reduced. English lockdown regulations restricting individual movement (previously SI 2020/350) have mostly been replaced by guidance (below). However new regulations SI 2020/684 for England do still ban gatherings of more than 30 people unless they fall within listed exceptions. Rules may differ in other parts of the UK. There is also the requirement for travellers from abroad (gov.uk) to self-isolate for 14 days, but with exceptions for arrivals from certain exempt countries, and the requirement for face coverings on public transport (above).

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 regulations, see below Links on social distancing requirements.

Courts

Courts are moving 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

Links on disability implications of the coronavirus and social distancing

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