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Rudeness or mockery: services and public functions

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Last updated 26th October, 2023.

Rudeness or mocking a person’s stammer seems quite common, including laughing at the stammer. This will usually be “harassment” in breach of the Equality Act.

Don’t laugh

Rudeness or mockery by customer-facing staff of businesses etc can take various forms, including laughing at the person’s stammer.

Laughter by a member of staff when they hear a customer stammer seems more common than might be expected. This may be the listener laughing “at” the person who stammers. Alternatively the laughter might come from embarrassment on the part of the person listening

Whatever the reason, hearing laughter from someone they are speaking to can be extremely hurtful for the person who stammers. Staff need to be aware of this.

A person who stammers rang a public helpline. The lady at the other end laughed at her as she was trying to speak. When the caller said that wasn’t acceptable the lady said: “You see, you can talk perfectly well when you want to!”

The caller wrote to the helpline who responded excellently. They listened to their tape of the conversation. The lady was taken off the helpline for re-training. The helpline also contacted the BSA for information to help them build stammering into their general training courses for helpline staff.

A person stammering on the phone heard the lady at the other end say to a colleague: “I’ve got a right idiot here.”

More examples: Real life examples, below.

Legal position

Rudeness or mockery in relation to a stammer, by a service provider or public authority, should usually be a breach of the Equality Act (EqA), as harassment under s.26.

The conduct must have at least the “effect” of violating the person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. Also it must be reasonable for the person who stammers to regard the conduct as having that effect (to protect organisations against oversensitive claimants). However much of the conduct people who stammer complain about clearly meets these criteria.

It is not clear whether the perpetrator needs to know of the disability: Harassment of employees>Does perpetrator need to know of the disability? However normally the harassment will be precisely because the staff member could tell the customer’s speech was different.

(There is often no claim for direct discrimination in respect of harassment: Harassment>Technical note: Relationship of harassment with direct discrimination and victimisation).

If unaware of disability

If the staff member did not realise the person has a speech impairment – eg if they genuinely believed the customer was drunk (as in the slurring words example below) – another type of claim to consider is discrimination arising from disability (s.15 EqA). Whether that succeeds will depend largely on whether the staff member could reasonably have been expected to know of the disability, after making enquiries so far as reasonable. There is also a defence under s.15 if the business shows objective justification, but this is likely to be more difficult if staff were not polite.

Other potential claims, depending on the facts, include failure to make reasonable adjustments, and harassment.

Services Code

The Services Code has an example of a person being refused service in a bar, perhaps politely. This may still be a breach of the EqA:

Code of Practice example: slurring words in a bar
“A disabled person is refused service at a bar because they are slurring their words, as a result of having had a stroke. In these circumstances, the disabled person has been treated unfavourably because of something arising as a consequence of their disability. It is irrelevant whether other potential customers would be refused service if they slurred their words. It is not necessary to compare the treatment of the disabled customer with that of any comparator. This will amount to discrimination arising from disability, unless it can be justified or the bar manager did not know or could not reasonably be expected to know the person was disabled.”
Services Code, paragraph 6.7. There is a mistake in the drafting of this example: it should read “…or the bar manager did not know and could not reasonably be expected to know the person was disabled.”

Some real examples:

Some of them include a comment on how the Equality Act would apply.

Apple stammering emoji

Many users of iPhones and iPads found that a ‘woozy face’ emoji automatically appeared when typing the word “stammering” into messages. Stamma (the British Stammering Association) said in a July…

Right to be heard examples, see ‘Right to be heard’.

20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019