The need for employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff has once again hit the news following a successful claim by a Starbucks employee with dyslexia, as recently reported in the national press and on television.
This case shows not only that even a global business giant can be beaten in an Employment Tribunal by an ordinary employee, but the often unnoticed dangers for employers from disability discrimination claims.
Starbucks lost a disability discrimination case after wrongly accusing a supervisor at their Clapham branch in South London of falsifying documents. In fact, the lady concerned had simply misread the numbers she was responsible for recording because she was dyslexic. Because of that mistake, her duties were downgraded and she was told she needed to re-train.
Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty, that can vary in degree, and which can cause problems with the reading or interpretation of words, letters and other symbols, as well as writing and spelling. The condition is believed to affect 1 in every 10 to 20 people in the UK and can present daily challenges to those suffering from it. It does not, however, affect someone’s general intelligence.
One of the findings against Starbucks in this case was that they had failed to make “reasonable adjustments”. Once an employer becomes aware of a disability they should take steps to understand the nature of the condition and how this may affect the employee in the workplace. They also have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to avoid the employee in question being placed at a disadvantage in the workplace because of their disability. What adjustments are reasonable will, of course, depend on various factors including the nature of disability and the work conditions in question. Here, for example, Starbucks could have assisted the employee by showing her how to do tasks visually. Instead it appears no adjustments were made, only an accusation of falsifying documents which quite understandably caused the employee considerable distress.
However, to be clear this duty to make reasonable adjustments only arises when an employer knows or should reasonably be expected to know that the employee (or even a job applicant) has a disability. The duty also only extends to making “reasonable” adjustments and various factors can be taken into account, including the nature and size of the employer, its operational needs and even the interests of other employees. In many cases an employer will be able to adequately protect themselves from a successful disability discrimination claim by educating themselves as to the nature of the disability in question and openly discussing with the employee what adjustments, if required, could reasonably be made.
If no adjustments can reasonably be made then it is entirely possible for an employer to bring the employment relationship to an end and provided they handle the situation in the right way and with sensitivity, they can do so without fear of a successful claim for discrimination or victimization against them.
Naturally employers should seek legal advice if concerned about an employee with a disability (or potential disability) and their obligations to make reasonable adjustments.
Following this case the British Dyslexia Association have issued a statement in which they refer to their helpline unfortunately receiving numerous calls from adults facing problems in the workplace, which could easily be avoided with the right workplace environment, where those affected feel able to openly discuss their concerns and obtain appropriate support. The right support and awareness is invaluable, with their also reminding employers that people with dyslexia can bring unique skills to the workplace.