Home » Telephone


Disclaimer – please read
This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 18th December 2011 (part update 4th April 2020).

Phone calls can be a particular problem for people who stammer. This page brings together Equality Act material about the telphone. Remember that your stammer must be a disability within the Equality Act in order to have rights under the the Act.

The BSA website includes tips for using the phone at work. Scroll down to Using the phone on Stammering at work (stamma.org).

Case study
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.

Treatment on the phone

A person may stammer more severely than usual on the phone, and may be tempted to avoid phone calls because of that. It is worth remembering though that in many cases there is broadly a legal obligation to allow the person who stammers to communicate, and not to treat them worse because of the stammer.

Discrimination on the phone can take various forms, for example

  • putting the phone down on someone because of their stammer; or
  • being rude because of the stammer.

This kind of treatment will often be against the Equality Act where it is by:

  • service providers – broadly anyone providing goods, services or facilities to the public, including free services such as a publicly run helpline. It also covers public authorities excersing other public functions. More on service providers…
  • actual or prospective employers, or even work colleagues (see below). More on employment…
  • education providers. More on education…

Possible remedies include compensation for injury to feelings.

The obligations can extend to a phone call with a work colleague, whether senior or junior to you – for example if the colleague hangs up on you in a work call. Unless the justification defence applies, both the colleague themself and often the employer are likely to be liable. See Who is liable.

Reasonable adjustments by employers

The employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments is one of the most important parts of the Equality Act. My pages of Examples of reasonable adjustments include a section on the telephone.

Reasonable adjustments by service providers

Service providers also have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments. My Making services accessible – on the phone aimed at service providers suggest various possible adjustments relating to the phone, such as:

  • allowing sufficient time, and relaxing any internal targets which get in the way of staff doing that;
  • avoiding telephone answering machines which cut off after perhaps a couple of seconds of pause in speech;
  • providing alternatives to use of the telephone;
  • in the case of a voice-activated phone systems where one’s speech is supposed to be understood by a computer, enabling a person who has difficulty with this due to a stammer to be promptly put through to a real person;
  • insurance companies should be wary of using voice analysis on insurance claims in such a way as to lead to claims by people who stammer being investigated with particular suspicion on the basis that they are likely to be dishonest.

Relay UK – typing instead of speaking

The Relay UK service lets you type what you want to say and a person (a “Relay Assistant”) will speak it to the other party to the phone call. The service itself is free, but you pay the call changes.

The website is www.relayuk.bt.com. You can download the Relay UK app to your smartphone or tablet, or download software to a computer (for Windows you need Java installed). In the app you can select the “I’ll be typing and hearing” option aimed at speech-impaired people, so you can type what you want to say but you’re able to hear what the other person says. Instructions for making or receiving a call are at www.relayuk.bt.com/how-to-use-relay-uk/use-relay-uk-with-app.html

The app also has other options for hearing impaired people: “I’ll be typing and reading” or “I’ll be speaking and reading”, where the Relay Assistant types what the other person says.

You may or may not be willing to have a third person (the Relay Assistant) involved in the call – though Relay UK stresses it is confidential. Relay UK is bound by GDPR. They say “We screen everyone very carefully before we employ them as Relay Assistants. When they’re on board, they have to stick to strict confidentiality rules….” www.relayuk.bt.com/how-to-use-relay-uk/relay-uk-for-business/how-relay-uk-works-for-business.html

If the business or organisation offers a textphone (minicom) number, both parties can converse direct by text, without needing a Relay Assistant. Assuming you don’t have a textphone, you might possibly be able to use the app or (perhaps more likely) the computer software from Relay UK to call a minicom number. However I haven’t tried this.

Relay UK is also discussed on my page Coronavirus (COVID-19)>Services, and there is an article about it on stamma.org.

Can a bank or other business refuse to take my Relay UK call?

The Equality Commission advises that refusing to take calls from disabled people that involve a third party, is likely to be a breach of the Equality Act…

Note to businesses etc on Relay UK

Perhaps because people who stammer can talk to a greater or lesser extent, it is probably fair to say that for the vast majority of people who stammer this app and textphones are not on the radar. Also speech therapists are likely to encourage people who stammer towards speaking in situations (such as the phone) which they may previously have been avoiding.

Most people who stammer do not use Relay UK or textphones, and indeed do not know about them. Also many people may find it difficult to do the amount of typing necessary.

Emergency SMS – contact 999 via text

People with speech or hearing difficulties can make 999 calls via text. You need to register your mobile phone before using the service. This is best done before an emergency arises. For instructions, go to www.emergencysms.net.

Might phone companies give discounts for people who stammer?
See www.mnsu.edu/comdis/kuster/phonecompanies.html

20th anniversary of stammeringlaw, 1999-2019