This page gives examples of what is likely to breach the Equality Act rules on services. It focuses on services to the public, but much of it should apply also to other Part 3 rules such as public authority functions.
Rudeness or mockery
Being rude to a customer in relation to their stammer will usually be a breach of the Equality Act, at least if the staff member can tell the customer has a speech impairment. Rudeness will frequently be unlawful as harassment and/or direct discrimination. Rudeness would be within the scope of s.29 EqA as being a worse standard of service or some other detriment (para 11.22 of Sevices Code).
If the staff member did not realise the person has a speech impairment (eg genuinely believed the customer was drunk), the legal position will depend more on the facts, including whether staff could reasonably have been expected to know of the disability. Potential claims would include discrimination arising from disability, failure to make reasonable adjustments, and harassment.
An example of rudeness/mockery is laughing at the person who stammers – or at someone who has some other speech impairment. This happens with distressing frequency, particularly on the telephone.
Some real-life examples:
Some examples include a comment on how the Equality Act would apply.
A BSA member showed that complaining can make a difference when he tweeted about an insensitive advert. A NatWest advert read: ‘Making sure your start-up doesn’t stutter’. A British Stammering…
A civil servant claims that staff at a Sainsburys petrol station mimicked his stammer when he had difficulty pronouncing his pump number, and laughed at his speech. According to him…
A bus company in Staffordshire apologised to a customer after one of its drivers laughed at her as she tried to buy a ticket. She said the driver put his…
Starbucks asks a customer’s name when he or she orders a drink, and writes it on the cup. In this particular case, when the customer stammered on his name the…
A person with cerebral palsy was trying to take out a subscription to a sports channel. The caller said that the person who took his call kept saying ‘What?’ and…
The lady on a helpline laughed at someone’s stammer and said ‘You can talk perfectly well if you want to’. A person who stammers rang a public helpline. The lady…
Example of a case settled by the Disability Conciliation Service (no longer in existence): “A man with a severe speech impediment was refused service at a local pub and subjected…
The Services Code has a similar example of a person being refused service in a bar, perhaps politely. This may still be a breach of the Equality Act:
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
Right to be heard
In general, a service provider needs to wait and give you time to speak, if they would listen to someone speaking fluently. This applies whether they are a shop assistant, a person speaking to you on the phone, or anyone else providing a service. It is normally likely to be difficult for a service provider to ‘objectively justify’ not giving time to speak.
A customer with a stammer has difficulty in explaining to a bank cashier what his service requirements are. The cashier asks the customer to go to the back of the queue so as not to delay other customers waiting to be served. It seems likely that this would normally be a breach of the Equality Act.
More on this example, including the justification defence: Example: Queue in bank
A person who stammers phones a restaurant to book a table. They are struggling to speak, and the restaurant puts the phone down. This is likely to be a breach of the Equality Act.
More on this example, including the justification defence: Example: restaurant puts phone down
See further Right to be heard.
Examples of not being allowed time may shade over into the section above ‘Rudeness or mockery‘, where for example the customer who stammers is told in a rude or irritated way that he or she will have to wait.
Voice recognition phone systems
There are now phone systems which understand speech. However, voice recognition software is unlikely to understand someone who is stammering significantly. The software may also time out if there is a significant pause while the person tries to say the word. It may well be a reasonable adjustment to allow the caller to be transferred promptly to a real person, if the computerised system cannot cope with their speech.
For more. Voice recognition telephone systems.
Giving alternative ways to communicate
It may well be a breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments, or indirect discrimination, to insist that something must be done through a particular means of communication. An example is where a business or other organisation insists that something must be done over the telephone which many who stammer find particularly difficult. See Making services accessible: provide alternative ways to communicate.
Voice analysis on insurance and benefit claims
I understand it is now common for insurance companies to use voice analysis software on people phoning up to make claims, to flag up those that are likely to be dishonest, eg where speech is hesitant. Claims flagged up by the software can then be subject to particularly rigorous investigation. This raises DDA issues because of the danger of people who stammer being unfairly targeted. Similar technology is now starting to be used for benefit claims.
For more examples, see ‘Making services accessible’.