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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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Last updated 21st July 2021 (part update 28th July 2021).

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) 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:

Job interviews

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.

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 after 19th July 2021 many staff may still be working from home (below Links on social distancing guidance in England). 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 given the businesses risk assessments, though this will depend on the circumstances. 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 further adjustments may well be required.

Also, even more than for a face-to-face interview (see Oral assessments 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 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.

Written answers?

For some interviewees it may not be reasonable to insist that they do 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 the individual 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.

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 is 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 now 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 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.

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.

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 to some extent. However the scheme is gradually being withdrawn. 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. 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 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), 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 2020.

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. Again it is sensible to try and agree this 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 you could 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

Face coverings can make it more difficult for people who stammer to talk or be understood. From 19th July 2021 in England wearing a face covering is no longer legally required on public transport and in shops etc, but some businesses and other organisations require customers or visitors etc to wear a face covering. See Face coverings and stammering.

Police enforcement

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 are required not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments.

In any event, in England the legal measures on Covid-19 that police were able to enforce have been drastically reduced as from 19th July 2021. SI 2021/848 has repealed most of the English Covid regulations, including those which required you to wear face coverings, and those which restricted the number of people you were allowed to meet (Schedule 3 of SI 2021/364). In England legal regulations which remain include:

  • the legal requirement to self-isolate if one tests positive or is notified by eg NHS Test and Trace: SI 2020/1045 (notification just by the NHS Covid app does not create a legal obligation to self-isolate, though the government says you should do so if told to by the app);
  • the legal requirement for travellers from abroad (gov.uk) to have specified Covid tests and (except for “green list” countries) self-isolate on arrival, at home or in hotel quarantine (gov.uk).

Link: Coronavirus: the lockdown laws (parliament.uk), House of Commons library research briefing, 6th July 2021.

As regards guidance – rather than the legal requirements – see also below Links on social distancing in England.

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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