Home » Disability equality law » Types of discrimination » Knowledge of disability

Knowledge of disability

Disclaimer – please read
This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 20th October 2012 (part update 16th January 2019).

This page discusses how far it can be a defence under the Equality Act for an employer or service provider etc to argue they did not know of the disability. It deals with express provisions on this in the Equality Act,. It also deals with the point that what adjustments are reasonable may be less if the employer did not have advance notice.


Lack of knowledge defences

  • On a claim of discrimination arising from disability, the employer or service provider has a defence if it:
    • did not know of the disability, and
    • could not reasonably have been expected to know of the disability.
  • In the case of employers, the same defence applies to the reasonable adjustment duty. The employer also has a defence to this duty if it did not know (and could not reasonably have been expected to know) of the substantial disadvantage.
  • As regards service providers and others subject to the ‘anticipatory’ reasonable adjustment duty, the role of knowledge is unclear but it may be relevant. See separate page Reasonable adjustments by service providers>Knowledge of disability.
  • A company will normally be treated as knowing anything which an employee or agent knows (in that capacity).
  • Codes of Practice say that an employer or service provider must do all it can reasonably be expected to do to find out whether the employee etc has a disability.

Other ways knowledge can be relevant

Another page you may want to look at is Recruitment: Should I tell the employer I stammer?

The two ‘lack of knowledge’ defences

The two types of claim for which there is an express ‘lack of knowledge’ defence are

  1. Discrimination arising from disability, and
  2. Reasonable adjustment duty on employers.

These are dealt with in turn below. The five sub-headings which follow are common to both defences:

There is no express defence for service providers and others as regards the ‘anticipatory’ reasonable adjustment duty. Here the role of knowledge is unclear, but knowledge may be relevant. This is dealt with on a separate page: Reasonable adjustments by service providers>Knowledge of disability.

1. Discrimination arising from disability

As regards ‘discrimination arising from disability’, the employer or service provider etc has a defence if it shows that it did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that the individual had the disability (s.15(2) EqA).

A teetotal customer with a stammer was initially refused a coffee at a pub, because staff though he was drunk. His slurring was due to a stammer. The pub would have a defence to ‘discrimination arising from disability’ if it shows that it did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that he had the disability.
Stammerer refused service because pub staff thought he was drunk (link to thesun.co.uk), 4/5/12.

However it seems the employer etc does not have to know of the causal link between the disability (eg stammer) and the reason for the unfavourable treatment – provided the employer knew (or could reasonably have been expected to know) of the disability. So if for example an employee is dismissed for underperformance or for misconduct, and (unbeknown to the employer) that had a causal link with the disability, the employer may still be liable under s.15 if the employer knew of the disability:

City of York Council v Grosset (link to bailii.org), Court of Appeal, 2018
A school knew that the claimant, who was one of its teachers, had cystic fybrosis. He had complained of having too much to do, and his condition required a time-consuming exercise regime. He showed an 18-rated film to a class (younger than 18), and the school dismissed him for misconduct. From evidence which had not been available to the school, the tribunal decided that the teacher’s error of judgment in showing the film was due to stress, which largely arose from his disability. He had therefore been dismissed because of something (ie showing the film) arising from his disability, and the tribunal held the dismissal was not justified so the school was in breach of s.15 EqA. The Court of Appeal upheld the tribunal’s decision, saying it did not matter that the school was unaware of the causal link between the disability and the film being shown.
There is more on this case as it relates to using Codes of Practice to interpret the Equality Act.

If the employer did not know of the causal link between the disability and the reason for dismissal, this may at least sometimes be relevant to whether or not the action of the employer etc is justified, but that is unclear.

2. Reasonable adjustment duty on employers

An employer’s obligation to make a reasonable adjustment does not apply if it does not know and could not reasonably be expected to know that –

‘Substantial’ means just ‘more than minor or trivial’. The requirement to know of the disadvantage only applies to the reasonable adjustment duty, not to the discrimination arising from disability (above).

Does this mean that to get protection a job applicant needs to tells the employer about the stammer? Not necessarily, but see Recruitment: Should I tell the employer I stammer?

In the case of an applicant or potential applicant, the employer also has a defence if it did not know and could not reasonably be expected to know that an interested disabled person is or may be an applicant for the relevant work.

There is no similar defence to the reasonable adjustment duty for service providers, education providers etc.

Knowledge of any employee or agent will normally count

It seems that a company or other organisation will generally be taken to know something that any of its employees or agents knows.

“If an employer’s agent or employee (such as an occupational health adviser, a HR officer or a recruitment agent) knows, in that capacity, of a worker’s or applicant’s or potential applicant’s disability, the employer will not usually be able to claim that they do not know of the disability and that they therefore have no obligation to make a reasonable adjustment. Employers therefore need to ensure that where information about disabled people may come through different channels, there is a means – suitably confidential and subject to the disabled person’s consent – for bringing that information together to make it easier for the employer to fulfil their duties under the Act.”
Employment Code para 6.21. See similarly para 5.17-19 of Employment Code, para 6.19 of Services Code, and para 6.17 of FHE Technical guidance. (However on OH practitioners see below.)

How might this apply in practice?

An employee applies for a promotion. His line manager knows he has a stammer, but the HR staff managing the selection process do not. It is likely that the employer will be treated as knowing about the stammer.
(An Employment Tribunal decision to the contrary in S v Translink is probably wrong. It seems to be inconsistent with the Employment Code, which was not considered.)

The employee etc needs to have the knowledge in his or her capacity as such. Presumably this means that if an employee acquires knowledge from family or friends outside work, that would not in itself count.

Outside of the ‘lack of knowledge’ defence, an individal staff member’s knowledge may still be decisive in some cases:

IPC Media Ltd v Millar (link to employmentcasesupdate.co.uk), EAT, 2013
The question was whether there was discrimination arising from disability under s.15 EqA. This is where “A treats B unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of B’s disability.” The employee claimed she had been treated unfavourably because of her absences from work (which where a consequence of her disability). The EAT held there was insufficient evidence that staff member who made the relevant decision knew of her absences. Therefore the way the claimant was treated could not have been ‘because’ of her absences.

An exception? Knowledge of occupational health practitioner

Occupational health (OH) practitioners are doctors or nurses, and have a duty of confidentiality. Other than in exceptional circumstances – for example, in safety-critical roles where someone is known to be misusing alcohol or drugs at work – they need the employee’s (or job applicant’s) consent before disclosing information to managers or Human Resources. (Faculty of Occupational Medicine: Guidance (link to fom.ac.uk)).

Despite the Employment Code, it seems likely that knowledge of an OH practitioner will not be attributed to the employer if the job applicant or employee has not consented to disclosure (unless perhaps exceptionally no consent is required).

The statement in the Employment Code is presumably based on London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham v. Farnsworth (link to bailii.org). This case suggested the job applicant must be taken to have consented to her answers being passed to the personnel department. It is criticised in Occupational Health Law (5ed) by Diana Kloss, at p.320-323. The book cites Hartman v South Essex Mental Health NHS Trust (link to bailii.org), a personal injury case in which the Court of Appeal rejected an argument that a vulnerability to stress disclosed to occupational health (expressly in confidence) fixed the employer with knowledge.

Knowledge of facts, even if employer wrongly advised it is not a disability

The question is whether the employer knew or should have known of the facts of the disability, not whether on those facts there was legally a ‘disability’. So an employer can still have the relevant knowledge despite being told, by a professional advisor for example, that there is no ‘disability’ within the Equality Act.

Gallop v Newport City Council (link to bailii.org), 2013, Court of Appeal
An employee had depression and claimed for failure to make reasonable adjustments. The employer was told on several occasions by its occupational health (OH) advisor, without reasons being given, that the employee did not have a disability within the Disabiity Discrimination Act 1995, the legislation then in force. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held this meant the employer did not have the required knowledge of the disability, so the claim for reasonable adjustments failed. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The question was whether the employer had actual or constructive knowledge of the relevant facts, eg was there a physical or mental impairment, was there a substantial long-term adverse effect on ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and was there a substantial disadvantage so as to trigger the reasonable adjustment duty. The unreasoned OH opinion was worthless. The Court of Appeal gave guidance at para 41 to 45 on how OH advice might more usefully be sought and given.

What if the employer or service provider did not actually know? – taking reasonable steps to find out

The statutory Codes of Practice say that an employer or service provider must do all it can reasonably be expected to do to find out whether the employee has a disability and – where relevant – is likely to be placed at a substantial disadvantage. (Employment Code of Practice para 5.15 and 6.19, Services Code of Practice para 6.16, FHE Technical guidance para 6.15).

The Codes of Practice also give some examples of what it would be reasonable for an employer or service provider to do.

People who stammer often do not see themselves as ‘disabled’. The Employment Code says employers should take this into account:

“…Employers should consider whether a worker has a disability even where one has not been formally disclosed, as, for example, not all workers who meet the definition of disability may think of themselves as a ‘disabled person’.”
Employment Code para 6.21. This point is particularly relevant for stammering.

Examples on employment

A case on stammering where the employer’s ‘lack of knowledge’ defence failed:

Y v Calderdale Council (2003), Employment Tribunal
A job applicant had a severe stammer. He stated on the application form that he was disabled by reason of “stammering”. However, he gave no indication of the severity of the stammer and left blank a question on whether he had any special requirements. He succeeded in a claim for breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments. The tribunal found that by the time the interviewers came to ask the interview questions, it was obvious and certain to both of them that the applicant was at a substantial disadvantage.
Note: this was a pre-Equality Act case and that issue might not even arise now. It seems that knowledge of the job applicant being at a substantial disadvantage may well not be required under the Equality Act, though knowledge of the disability might be.

A claim on stammering where the employer’s ‘lack of knowledge’ defence succeeded:

S v Translink (2008), Employment Tribunal
The tribunal found it was clear from the evidence and the notes of the interviewer that the claimant’s speech impediment was notable in the interview. However the tribunal found credible the interviewer’s explanation for not commenting on it. The interviewer had no way of knowing whether the stammer was as a result of nerves or a ‘disability’ – as no information had been provided to him with regard to that issue. The employer could not reasonably be expected to know the claimant had a disability likely to put him at a substantial disadvantage in the assessment process, and accordingly had a defence to the reasonable adjustment duty.
Comment: It may well be argued in a future case that an employer in these circumstances should take reasonable steps to find out if there was a disability (see above What if the employer or service provider did not actually know? – taking reasonable steps to find out).

The employee in this case was already employed by Translink. His line manager knew of the stammer, but those dealing with the selection process did not. The tribunal held that the line manager’s knowledge could not be imputed to the employer.
Comment: That is probably wrong. It seems inconsistent with the Employment Code, which was not considered. See above Knowledge of any employee or agent will normally count.

An example of an Employment Appeal Tribunal decision on a rare disorder where the employer could not have been expected to know unless actually told:

Ridout v TC Group plc [1998] EAT
A job applicant disclosed she had photo-sensitive epilepsy controlled by medication. Her claim failed because the employers could not be expected to know that the lighting arrangements at the interview would disadvantage her. The applicant had a very rare form of epilepsy and the tribunal was entitled to conclude that no reasonable employer could be expected to know, without being told in terms by the applicant, that the arrangements which were made for the interview might disadvantage her.

Example on provision of services

From the Services Code, paragraph 6.18
Where there is no ongoing relationship, a service provider will nevertheless need to consider whether there is a disability and, as a result, the particular treatment will amount to unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of their disability. This may involve something as simple as giving a disabled person the opportunity to disclose their disability by asking them if there is any reason for their behaving in a particular way.

Example: In a busy café with only counter service, one of the staff notices a customer is sitting at a table without ordering. It is the café’s policy to ask people who are taking up tables without having ordered anything to leave. The staff member goes up to the customer’s table and asks if he needs any help. The customer discloses that he has diabetes and his legs are hurting him, meaning that it would be difficult for him to go up to the counter and order food and drink himself.

That is an example on discrimination arising from disability. The role of knowledge as regards the reasonable adjustment duty on service providers is not clear – see separate page Services: Reasonable adjustments – Knowledge of disability.

Reasonableness of adjustments – relevance of advance knowledge

This section is about the reasonable adjustment duty on employers, assuming the ‘lack of knowledge’ defence (above) does not apply. It discusses how letting an employer (or perhaps indeed a service provider) know in advance of a stammer and the need for adjustments can increase the likelihood that it will be reasonable to make the adjustments.

Thus an employer may have greater obligations under the reasonable adjustment duty if it has sufficient notice to consider the adjustments and to make appropriate preparations in advance of the interview, assessment etc. As well as having advance notice of the stammer, it may help that the employer is told either what adjustments are sought (so far as possible) or enough about the disability to understand what adjustments may be required.

Quite apart from one’s legal rights, letting the employer or other business know in advance makes it more likely that adjustments will happen in practice.

In S v Translink the tribunal held that it would not have been reasonable to arrange a second interviewer for the claimant given there was no advance notice. (In that case, this ‘reasonableness’ point was in addition to the ‘lack of knowledge’ defence which was also held to apply).

However, in Y v Calderdale Council the tribunal seemed willing to countenance very significant adjustments, even though it was only at the interview itself that the employer became aware of the extent of the problem. The employer had been informed in the application form that the applicant had a stammer, but not of its severity.

The employer probably ought to be proactive (see Reasonable adjustment rules>Onus to comply is on employer). However, if the employer does not raise the issue, a person who stammers who would like adjustments could perhaps raise it when he has been sent the invitation to interview.

The relevance of an employer’s knowledge in deciding what adjustments are reasonable is acknowledged in the Employment Code of Practice:

The practical effects of an employer’s duties may be different if a person whom the employer previously did not know to be disabled (and it would not be reasonable to expect them to have known this) arrives for interview and is substantially disadvantaged because of the arrangements. The employer will be under a duty to make a reasonable adjustment from the time that they first learn of the disability and the disadvantage. However, the extent of the duty is less than might have been the case if they had known (or ought to have known) in advance about the disability and its effects.
Employment Code, para 16.60.

Indirect discrimination – is knowledge required?

It is not clear how far a company may be liable for indirect discrimination if they did not know of the disability. Arguments for no knowledge of the disability being required are:

  • The Equality Act contains no ‘lack of knowledge’ defence for indirect discrimination.
  • In parliamentary debates on the Equality Act, the Solicitor General Vera Baird commented that “[indirect discrimination], of course, does not require knowledge” of the disability on the part of the employer, service provider etc (col 108, Public Bill Cttee, 9th June (link to UK Parliament website)).
  • It might be argued that the provision, criterion or practice should not have been introduced in the first place if it was not objectively justified.

On the other hand in McClintock v Department of Constitutional Affairs (link to bailii.org) [2008], a case on religious discrimination, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (Elias P, at para 46) indicated that knowledge could be relevant. “It would be absurd, for example, if an employer could be liable for religious discrimination for refusing an employee time off on a Friday if the employee had not even made it clear that the reason he made this request was for religious purposes.”

20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019