Examples of what universities can do to meet their Equality Act obligations in relation to students who stammer, including prospective students. There is a separate page on oral assessments.
The following are some ideas for changes that can be made by universities – and possible EqA breaches by them – in relation to students who stammer. On this page I don’t necessarily distinguish between “reasonable adjustments” and other steps to comply with the Equality Act. What is reasonable/justified will depend on the circumstances. I discuss the legal rules on University and FE: the rules.
Oral assessments and assessed presentations
Examples of adjustments etc for these are on a separate page: Oral assessments, and assessed presentations>Examples of how assessments can be altered.
Possible adjustments include
- making sure attendees can participate and get their questions answered without having to speak in front of a group of people
- use of name labels.
For more, see pp.18-19 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.
Arguably the university should make adjustments to Open Days for those with speech impairments even without knowing of any particular attendees with that type of disability: Universities: Knowledge of disability>Applying an adjustment to all students.
Apart from reasonable adjustments, an example from the EHRC Technical guidance:
At a careers event for students and parents at an FE college, a student attends with her parents who are both Deaf. They communicate using BSL and the student notices two support staff staring and silently mimicking them. The student is very upset by the conduct of these staff which prevents her from fully participating in the event as it creates a degrading and offensive environment for her as well as her parents. The student could bring a claim of harassment related to disability.
EHRC Technical guidance 2014, para 8.12. It could equally be an Open Day for prospective students, and at a university. The example illustrates that a person may be able to claim for harassment even if it is someone else who is disabled.
Providing information about the institution and course in advance
More generally (ie beyond just making Open Days accessible), prospective students who stammer may be put off if they cannot readily find out how about eg the university’s styles of teaching, learning and assessment on a course, and use of technology such as Padlet – and so how far they may need additional support for their stammer: “Supporting students who stammer in higher education”, p.17-18.
Extra time in an admission interview may not be enough as an adjustment, since people who stammer may keep their answers too short. Other possibilities include, for example, taking into account written responses also, and making adjustments to or waiving any oral presentation:
- p.19 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC
- my discussion of interviews by employers at Examples of reasonable adjustments: Recruitment, and Presentations in recruitment.
As well as being required to make reasonable adjustments, a university may be liable for discrimination arising from disability (s.15 EqA) if it rejects an application because of something resulting from the stammer.
Example: Because of their stammer (and probably the lack of adjustments) a person applying for a place at university is unable sufficiently to get their points across in an admission interview. The university therefore turns down their application. The university is potentially liable under s.15 EqA, as well as for any failure to make reasonable adjustments.
See fuller version of this example, which is followed by some other examples on applying to university.
Disclosure of stammer
Another issue is encouraging students to let the university etc know about their stammer. See below on including an appropriate category in forms asking about disability.
Teaching sessions, tutorials, group work
Adjustments for these (face-to-face or virtual) – and issues faced by students who stammer without proper adjustments – are covered at some length on pages 21-23 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC, 2021. Just a few of the many possible adjustments suggested in that document:
- use of technology such as Padlet, giving an alternative to speech
- avoiding spot questioning
- in virtual learning environments, use of breakout rooms, the chat function and polls
- use of pair work and small groups in tutorials.
Without appropriate adjustments, students who stammer may not only hold back from participating in sessions etc, but may skip sessions where they feel their speech will be a problem, for example lectures where the lecturer asks spot questions. Or students may be put off doing certain modules they would really like to do.
Given that a university may not necessarily be aware of speech impairments, there is a question whether a university should make at least some adjustments to the way it does lectures, tutorials etc even without knowing of any particular attendee with that type of disability: Universities: Knowledge of disability>Applying an adjustment to all students.
On accessible assessment methods and learning objectives, as well as pp.23-26 of the STAMMA/STUC document see my separate page Oral exams and assessed presentations>Examples of how assessments can be altered.
An older list of suggested adjustments is Working with students who stammer (pdf on archive of De Montfort University website, 2007.
As always, types of Equality Act claim other than reasonable adjustments may also be relevant:
A student with cerebral palsy which affects her speech, is working on her thesis for her research degree. Her personal tutor avoids supervision sessions for individual discussion with the disabled student because the sessions take longer than with other students due to her slow speech….
Para 6.8 of the 2007 Code of Practice. This example related to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Under the Equality Act 2010 it will be discrimination arising from disability under s.15, unless justified which is unlikely.
A student with a stammer feels he is being harassed because his lecturer makes constant jokes about people with speech impairments. He asks his lecturer to stop doing this, but the lecturer says he is being ‘”oversensitive” as he habitually makes jokes about many different sorts of people. This is likely to amount to harassment because making remarks of this kind should reasonably be considered as having either of the effects mentioned [in para 7.13] above.
Para 7.15 of the 2007 Code of Practice, again on the DDA 1995. The result is likely to be the same under the Equality Act 2010, even though its legal wording as regards subjective perceptions is a bit different.
Finding out about stammer and need for adjustments
Another issue is encouraging students to let the university etc know about their stammer, and also having procedures to consider whether adjustments are needed if a stammer is apparent or there is reason to suspect one.
I suggest that a university which does not take reasonable steps to find out about any disability students may have, and about any need for adjustments, may not be able to rely on its ignorance if it fails to make reasonable adjustments as a result: Universities: Knowledge of disability>Treating disabled student differently. More precisely, taking steps to find out may be part of the anticipatory reasonable adjustment the university should have made.
It seems reasonable that universities should design appropriate steps against the background of reasons why students may feel reluctant to disclose their stammer: see “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC, pp.9-10, 11, 16, 19-20, 29, 30, 31.
HE institutions need to be proactive in creating and advertising support as students who stammer may be less likely to present to disability services without this.
“Supporting students who stammer in higher education”, by STAMMA/STUC, p.33.
Just a couple of examples of steps:
Forms asking about disability
Often stammering does not readily fit into any of the categories in disability disclosure forms:
A university ensures that one of the categories in its disability disclosure form includes stammering (eg “communication impairment” or “speech impairment”). If it does not do so and later fails to make a reasonable adjustment due to ignorance of the stammer, it may be in breach of the anticipatory reasonable adjustment duty.
See too Universities: Knowledge of disability>Treating disabled student differently.
A specific category may be helpful particularly since stammering is often not viewed as a “disability”, and people who stammer may be reluctant to disclose it anyway. Often these disclosure forms can “ironically, prevent disclosure of stammering” (“Supporting students who stammer in higher education”, by STAMMA/STUC, pp.9-10).
Ongoing review of adjustments/support
A student’s requirements for support may vary over time. There need to be opportunities for the student to express their perception of how support is working, for example a meeting each term, with the ability to contact someone outside that schedule if required: “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC, pp.14-15.
Social and leisure
The reasonable adjustment duty and other Equality Act obligations extend to social and leisure activities. Broadly the university will be liable for events it runs (under EqA Part 6 as regards students, University and FE: the rules>What activities are covered?). If legally separate from the university, broadly the students union and/or clubs should be liable for events they run (under EqA Part 3 as service providers).
Adjustments might include using name labels so students don’t have to say their name, pair work introductions (rather than everyone introducing themself), setting out ground rules about acceptance of others, modelling inclusive behaviour and making clear that bullying has serious consequences: p.27 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.
As always, types of Equality Act claim other than reasonable adjustments may also be relevant:
A disabled student is not allowed to enter a public speaking competition because his speech is slurred as a result of having cerebral palsy. In this case there is no need for a comparator. This amounts to discrimination arising from disability (which will be unlawful unless it is justified).
Para 6.6 of EHRC’s Technical guidance, 2014. It could apply equally to a student with a stammer.
A theatre studies course that organises theatre trips for its students turns down an application for a trip from a woman with a hearing impairment as they believe she would not get the same benefits as other students. This is likely to be direct disability discrimination.
Para 4.14 of the EHRC’s Technical guidance, 2014. The reason for turning down the application was her disability, even though the course organisers thought they were acting from “good intentions”.
Study (or work) abroad
The UK university might liaise with the host institution or workplace to facilitate the transition into the overseas location and to ensure relevant adjustments are made in advance, and seek to address concerns (if any) about more negative perceptions of stammering in the relevant country: p.28 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.
Both the university and (at least if in Britain) the employer will have obligations to comply with the Equality Act: see Work placements related to education courses.
There is some guidance on pp.29-30 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.
Supporting transition into employment, including careers services
A university’s own careers service is likely to fall within EqA Part 6 (education) rather than being an “employment service”, so that claims would go to the County Court rather than an employment tribunal: ‘Employment services’>Training for employment, and vocational guidance.
There may be unlawful discrimination if a careers service unduly limits the possibilities of what jobs a person who stammers might do. Also a person who stammers may need additional support on issues of disclosing their stammer to employers (if they wish to) and seeking reasonable adjustments. See pp.29-30 of “Supporting students who stammer in higher education” by STAMMA/STUC.
A trainee primary school teacher with a severe facial disfigurement is told by her course tutor that she should not expect to work with very young children ‘looking like that’ because she might ‘upset’ the children. The tutor questions the student’s choice of career and makes remarks about new treatments and make-up to cover the ‘problem’, in front of others. The student is very offended and hurt by this behaviour. This is likely to be direct discrimination and harassment related to disability.
EHRC Technical guidance 2014, para 8.10.
- Guide for universities produced by STAMMA and STUC: “Supporting students who stammer in higher education”, 2021
- Stammering & university video (stamma.org) – video of an online session giving guidance and tips on stammering at university. 20th September 2022.
- Working with students who stammer (pdf on archive of De Montfort University website, 2007.