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Is the stammer a disability?

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This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 18th November 2021 (part update 25th December, 2023).

This page outlines how far a stammer is a “disability” within the Equality Act 2010. It gives links to more detail.

Note: different “disability” tests apply for welfare benefits and other legislation.

Why is it important?

To claim for disability discrimination, a person normally needs to have a “disability” as defined in the Equality Act. If the stammer is a disability, the Act gives anti-discrimination rights in respect of employment, services and education. Being perceived to have a disability can sometimes also give rights.

“Disability” test is not difficult to meet

It is reasonably easy for a stammer to come within the Equality Act. Broadly, a stammer is covered if it has a substantial adverse effect on one’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, such as having a conversation or using the telephone. (The full definition is below.)

This is not a difficult test to meet, though adequate evidence for the tribunal is needed if the employer etc does not accept it is a disability. “Substantial” means only “more than minor or trivial” (s.212(1) EqA). The example below clearly illustrates that the stammer need not be severe.

“…A man has had a stammer since childhood. He does not stammer all the time, but his stammer, particularly in telephone calls, goes beyond the occasional lapses in fluency found in the speech of people who do not have the impairment. However, this effect can often be hidden by his avoidance strategies. He tries to avoid making or taking telephone calls where he believes he will stammer, or he does not speak as much during the calls. He sometimes tries to avoid stammering by substituting words, or by inserting extra words or phrases.

“In [this case] there are substantial adverse effects on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day communication activities.”

Para D17 of 2011 statutory guidance. In the original, the second paragraph says “In these cases…” because there are two non-stammering examples before this one.

Might be no dispute, or claimant may need to prove ‘disability’

Any case will depend on the individual facts. However, in various tribunal cases it has been accepted without argument that the person’s stammer had a substantial effect (see Cases on stammering). Many more cases never get to court, and the employer (or service provider etc) will often accept the stammer is a disability.

Sometimes though, the employer etc will dispute whether the stammer is a disability. If there is a dispute and the case gets to a tribunal or court, it is for the claimant to bring adequate evidence to show that their stammer meets the legal test, setting out the relevant effects of the stammer in a disability “impact statement” and perhaps getting an expert report from a speech and language therapist: see Proving disability.

There are various cases where the tribunal held a stammer was a disability.

For some claims, the stammer may not need to be a “disability”

For direct discrimination and harassment, it should be enough that the employer etc (mistakenly) perceived there to be a disability: separate page Perceived disability. If someone is claiming direct discrimination or harassment, it will often be a good idea to claim for “perceived disability” as an alternative, in addition to arguing that the person has an actual disability within the Equality Act definition.

Also in a claim for indirect discrimination, under s.19A EqA the claimant may not need to have a disability: separate page Indirect discrimination>If claimant does not have “disability” within EqA. Again, it may be prudent to include a claim under s.19A in case the employer, service provider or university etc argues that the claimant does not have a disability within the EqA.

There may sometimes be a claim for unfair dismissal, which does not depend on whether one has a disability. For example, In Williams v Newport City Council, 2023, an employment tribunal held (and it was not appealed) that even if the claimant had no disability within the EqA, her unfair dismissal claim succeeded since any reasonable employer would have removed the requirement that she attend court. This would have enabled her to continue in the job rather than be dismissed. She had previously been traumatised by an experience in court.

What if I’m not sure whether it’s a disability?

Even if someone is not sure whether their stammer is a “disability”, it will often make sense to go on the basis that it is. Ultimately the court will decide, if it gets that far. Normally it won’t get that far. However, if someone is discriminated against in relation to their stammer, or if someone requires reasonable adjustments, there is likely to be a respectable argument (at least) that the stammer is a “disability”.

Guide to more detail

Basic legal definition

Under s.6 EqA a person (whom the legislation calls “P”) has a “disability” if:

“(a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and
(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Though all elements of the definition must be met, the only ones which will usually be at issue with stammering are whether it has a “substantial” effect as regards ability to carry out “normal day-to-day” activities.

The key point will usually be whether this effect is “substantial” – see ‘Substantial effect’. “Substantial” means only “more than minor or trivial”, so the threshold is not high. Other elements of the definition:

  • Normal day-to-day activities” includes obvious things such as conversations and telephone calls, but is wider than one would expect as regards claims against employers. It covers very many activities at work as well as outside of it. Where employment discrimination is at issue, “normal day-to-day activities” should even include presentations and job interviews.
  • It seems clear that a stammer is a physical or mental impairment.
  • “Long-term” normally means at least 12 months (or likely to recur within 12 months). A stammer will usually have lasted much longer than this. However, this part of the definition may be an issue for Stammering starting in adulthood.

Hidden effects are also relevant

Even hiding your stammer, perhaps while appearing outwardly fluent, should be able to count towards there being a substantial effect. This could include avoiding situations, speaking less, or switching words.

Therapy or aids: “deduced effects”.

Effects are taken as they would be without treatment or aids. So for example if a person uses an electronic device (such as delayed auditory feedback), one looks how the stammer would be without the device. It may also be possible to disregard speech techniques which are being used. See Therapy, and using speech techniques or devices.

Fluctuating effects

A stammer can be a “disability” even though it does not happen all the time:

No registration is required.

You don’t need to register as disabled in order to have rights under the Equality Act 2010. The question is just whether you meet the Equality Act definition of “disability”.

Stammering which starts in adulthood

Stammering normally starts in early childhood (“developmental stammering”). Much less common is Stammering starting in adulthood. The latter may give rise to further legal issues, particularly whether it meets the requirement of being “long-term”.

Statutory guidance

There is a 40 page document of “statutory guidance” on what counts as a disability. This is not legally binding, but must be taken into account by the courts. See 2011 guidance.

That guidance document does not apply in Northern Ireland.

Different “disability” definitions elsewhere

The “disability” definition discussed here applies to rights under the Equality Act 2010. There are different disability tests for rights under other legislation, for example as to whether a person is entitled to a Blue Badge for parking, or whether a person is entitled to welfare benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit, and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

“I don’t like to be seen as disabled.”

If you want to rely on the Equality Act, you normally need to say you are “disabled” as defined in it. But this is just a legal definition for the purposes of that Act, to decide who is protected from discrimination. It does not mean you lack ability. It seems that a stammer may be a “disability” even if the person is an excellent communicator (‘Substantial effect>May be an excellent communicator).

Under the “social model” of disability, it may be people’s attitudes which disable a person, eg attitudes of employers who fail to look past the stammer.

See further Reluctance to be seen as “disabled”.

20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019