Deaf and disabled people – taking legal cases, some facts.

When a deaf or disabled person takes legal action (sues someone) over accessibility issues this is usually a last resort.

While I recognise many Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, under the Equality Act, this is their protected characteristic and the legal way to complain. So I shall use the term disabled in this post.

A disabled person has the legal right to access goods and services from service providers the same as someone without that disability (where possible). Service providers can be public or private sector and are everything from shops, cafes, pubs, museums, galleries, music venues/events, utilities providers, the NHS, government agencies like the Jobcentre and more.

The most detailed guidance about disability rights for providers is the Services, Public functions and Associations: Statutory Code of Practice. There are slightly different legalities for education, transport and employment providers.

Myths and negative comments

Each heading below reflects a type of negative comment that is made about disabled people taking legal action to enforce our legal rights.

Who is responsible for providing access or adjustments?

It is the Service Provider’s responsibility to provide access and make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 (Formerly know as the Disability Discrimination Act, DDA, before 2010).

Despite:

  • the DDA coming into force in the mid 1990s (over 22 years ago),
  • the duty to make reasonable adjustments being anticipatory (meaning access, needs should be considered in advance of someone making a request),
  • many access issues being cheap and easy to resolve,
  • the availability of free guidance and
  • abundance of Disability Equality Trainers,

many service providers have not made their services accessible and do not have proper policies and practices for dealing with requests.

Access and adjustments have to be ‘reasonable‘ such as cost, disruption and other factors for determining reasonableness. If an access request is ‘reasonable‘ then it is not lawful to ask the disabled person to pay for, provide or pay extra to cover the cost of the adjustment.

This is why statements such as:

  • “The deaf person should provide their own interpreter.”
  • “The blind person should ask a family member to help them read letters.”
  • “The wheelchair user should provide their own ramps to get into places.”

are legally wrong..

More detailed exploration of reasonableness for service providers is available on pages 97 to 108 of the Code of Practice. This also explains why deaf and deafblind people can lawfully request Communication Support from a service provider, but why a service provider usually does not have to provide assistance with toileting or other personal care support.

“The disabled person should have asked nicely instead of suing.”

Before we can take legal action, disabled people have to prove we have contacted the service provider and asked nicely for an adjustment or raised the complaint about discrimination many many times. There are limited resources explaining how to make a proper complaint and take legal action. Disabled people have often provided “free awareness training” about our specific issue, linked to relevant publications or got an expert to support us. We have to go through internal complaints processes, issue at least one pre-legal letter before filing a court claim within 6 months of the last date of discrimination.

Service providers react in a number of ways to disabled people asking for adjustments or complaining about discrimination. They rarely provide a proper justification for refusal showing that they have considered reasonableness. Sometimes they will claim the law does not apply to them, or they do not understand it. Other tactics include sending long verbose, legally-threatening, bureaucratic and sometimes hurtful letters which do not address the relevant issues properly, or are intended to scare the disabled person off. In some cases service providers will not reply at all or delay replying until it is too late for an adjustment to be provided, or for the disabled person to follow the legal process.

“Why didn’t the disabled person complain via the proper authorities?”

Many people seem to think there is an organisation like the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which allow an individual to report accessibility or discrimination issues. There is no organisation like this. Only disabled people who have experienced discrimination can make complaints and take legal cases. We’d love a third-party agency to deal with access and discrimination issues, it would save us a lot of time, stress and abuse.

The EHRC mostly focus on hosting publications about the Equality Act, they only support a handful of cases a year if there are significant legal principles at stake and often only once a case has got to the appeal stage. The advice from the Equality Advisory and Support Service is limited and generic. The disabled person still has to handle the complaint themselves and translate available advice to their circumstances and deal with the service provider and maybe even their lawyers.

“The disabled person is only suing for the money.”

When a disabled person makes a legal claim, they have to say what “remedy” they want. The main legal remedy is financial compensation for actual losses and injury to feelings which is how humiliation, distress and other detriment caused my discrimination are described. Before 2013 disabled people could claim their legal costs from the other side if they were successful but then something called Qualified One Way Costs Shifting was introduced which has reduced disabled people’s ability to take discrimination cases because it is so financially risky. Most of the legal profession wants this reversed.

Most disabled people don’t want money, they want an apology, changes to the system so discrimination won’t happen again to them or other people. But if the discrimination is never acknowledged, or keeps happening, then disabled people have to take legal action to enforce their rights and make caselaw via an imperfect legal system.

Making an initial complaint

A deaf friend of mine who I will call Anna has given me permission to write about a recent experience she had with a mobile phone company. We hope this post will inspire more deaf and disabled people to make initial complaints about discriminatory and poor service.

Text access to companies is best but won’t always help

Like many deaf people, Anna prefers to use text communication methods like text messages (SMS), email and web chat when contacting companies. Unfortunately on this occasion the web-chat advisers said they were unable to assist with Anna’s issue even though other deaf people reported being able to use web-chat for identical issues with the same company.

Company refusing to take a relay or interpreted call from a deaf person

When Anna phoned up using Next Generation Text Relay (an official service provided by BT and mandated for by OfCom), several advisers refused to accept the call citing ‘data protection’. This meant Anna’s issue did not get resolved, wasted a lot of her time and caused her a lot of stress.

Complaining

Anna looked up the company Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) email address at http://ceoemail.com. Anna wrote a complaint including the following information:

  • The date and time of the web-chat and attempted relay calls so the company could trace any records they had.
  • Brief details of the issue she had been trying to resolve.
  • Names of the advisers she had spoken to and a summary of what each one of them had claimed. In this section Anna was clear that she felt the problem was caused by a company training issue or lack of policies on access for deaf customers rather than individual advisers as several gave the same data protection excuse.
  • How much time Anna spent which was wasted.
  • Why Anna felt she had been discriminated against because of her disability (deafness) and why this was not lawful under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Quotations and links from the OfCom website [3rd item down] about it being unlawful and citing data protection not being a valid reason to refuse relay or interpreter assisted calls.
  • A reminder that she had been a loyal customer of the company for many years but was considering moving to a competitor.
  • Description of how the refusal of the company to deal with her issue by web-chat or take her call by relay had negatively impacted on Anna’s confidence, wellbeing and ability to manage her own affairs.
  • A request for the company to reimburse Anna for her call costs and time as well as improving their staff training.
  • Ending with a reminder that if the response was not satisfactory that Anna would not hesitate to escalate to the appropriate regulator. She asked for a response within a reasonable 10 working day timescale.

While Anna was very upset and angry, she kept her letter polite and formal throughout – avoiding angry words or bad language. She used a small part of her letter to  describe how the discrimination had affected her and made her feel. The structure Anna used can be copied and adapted by anyone wanting to make an initial disability discrimination complaint to an organisation.

Other useful links about this issue are:

The purpose of this kind of letter is to give the organisation a chance to “put things right” as well as making sure that bad experiences are documented.

Company’s Response

The company responded to Anna within 3 days with a somewhat scripted but actually good response from a named complaints handler called M who said:

  • The complaint had been investigated and upheld which meant M on behalf of the company recognised there was a problem.
  • The Company did have policies for dealing with disabled and deaf customers but in Anna’s case staff had clearly not followed them.
  • Promised to investigate further to ensure the “problem” did not happen again.
  • Apologised for poor service “not up to our usual high standard” (organisations avoid admitting to discrimination by framing it as poor service).
  • Explained how M could resolve Anna’s outstanding service issue directly.
  • Offered £50 compensation payment.

Anna responded to the Company to thank them for their prompt response, remind them that training their staff is a priority and that she would accept the £50 compensation.

Anna will also be keeping copies of her original complaint materials, letter and reply in case the organisation makes the same mistake again…

Discussion

The Company responding in the way they did was the best possible outcome for themselves and Anna at this stage – once the obviously undesirable discrimination had happened.

Anna got her complaint on record with the Company, and gave them a chance to “put things right” by allowing them a chance to investigate and deal with short or long term issues. The payment of compensation is small but significant. The fact Anna has achieved this result is extremely useful if the Company discriminates against Anna again in future.

From the Company’s point of view, by acknowledging the problem (which Anna can clearly prove happened), dealing with immediate issues, stating that they do have a policy and will investigate why staff didn’t follow it and paying £50 compensation the Company have limited the legal risk to themselves in this instance. This is because their response would be seen to be “reasonable remedy” – no ombudsman, regulator or the courts would support Anna if she demanded any different outcome at this point.

Needing to make further complaints

I hope to write another post about what happens if discrimination keeps happening and further complaints have to be made soon.

Case 1: Adjustments not provided in job interview.

Requesting adjustments before the interview

I was delighted to be shortlisted for interview at a place I really wanted to work. Straight away, I emailed the HR contact (HR-Junior) to let the employer know I am deaf and need the names of the interviewers in writing and the main interview questions given to me in writing as well as verbally in the interview. I also asked for the interview panel to be told I was deaf.

People’s names are a nightmare for me as a deaf person, context and other cues don’t help. I struggle to remember names I have only heard. If I see a name written down I am much more likely to remember it. Written questions mean even if the interviewer is difficult for me to hear I have access to the question in an accurate format and can be sure I understood it correctly. It also helps with my memory as I tend to find it difficult to hold things in memory and think properly at the same time. Listening, especially to strangers takes a lot of processing time and energy for me.

A few days later HR-Junior replied to confirm the employer was happy to make the adjustments I had requested.  She asked if she could share my adjustments request email with the panel chair so the adjustments could be put in place – I emailed back to say she could do this.

Interview day

On the day of my interview (day 0) I realised I had not been given the interviewers’ names in writing. I decided not to worry as sometimes they are provided during the interview itself – especially if the panel staffing has not been finalised in advance.

I reported to the correct place, handed my documents over for the obligatory checks and photocopying before being taken to wait for the interview. After a few minutes, the Chair of the panel invited me into the room. There was the usual slightly awkward settling in period before the Chair started the introductions and interview proper.

I soon realised the written-questions were not being provided…

As a deaf person I have to concentrate hard to follow speech, especially with people I do not know well. If I allow myself to become distracted my brain will stop processing the speech meaning I will have no idea what has been said. At worst, (which often happens to me in shops) is a situation where I stop realising someone has even been speaking, even when I am expecting them to talk to me and think I am concentrating on their face/mouth movements.

I could not allow myself to get distracted by thinking through the pros and cons of interrupting the interview so decided to just do my best without the written questions. It was quite hard not to panic. I felt there were at least two occasions where the interviewers and I were talking at cross purposes and not understanding one another well. My memory of the interview was patchy because I had to concentrate so hard on hearing – I couldn’t even remember the names of the interviewers.

Telling HR adjustments didn’t happen

Day 1: I emailed HR-Junior as soon as I got home to let her know that the interviewers’ names in writing and written questions adjustments had not been provided.  To my surprise she replied the next morning (day 2) admitting that she had filed my email without passing my adjustment request onto the panel so the failure was her fault – she was very apologetic. I realised this meant the panel had not known I was deaf, but I had given my answers as if they did – which could have come across as rude or strange.

At this point I did not know the interview outcome and was worried my performance had been negatively affected. I asked HR-Junior to ask the interview panel to  consider ways of mitigating the disadvantage the lack of adjustment and stress of that had on my performance.

Didn’t get job, disadvantage concerns dismissed by Chair

A few days later (day 5) I received an email from an HR-Senior saying I had not been successful in getting the job and offering me feedback. The email also included a message from the panel Chair saying that she was 100% confident that I had not been disadvantaged as the panel did not notice me struggling to hear or answer any of the questions.

I decided to just ask HR-Senior for the interview feedback and take a few days to think about the adjustments issue. It is often better to say nothing than something you may later regret. HR-Senior sent me feedback on day 9.

Deciding whether to complain or not?

I took a little bit of time to think about whether I would pursue my complaint. I talked to friends and family including many who have a lot of experience in the area of deafness and some who were able to help me overcome self-doubt, draft and proofread a formal and legal complaint.

I had several reasons for deciding to pursue the complaint including:

  • The panel chair was not qualified to judge whether I was at a disadvantage (I had not asked her to make that judgement).
  • By ignoring the disadvantage the panel had not even tried to mitigate it, so I was not able to trust the fairness of the appointment.
  • I am left with a lot of anxiety about whether my requested adjustments would be in place for future interviews.
  • It was a ‘simple’ case and I had enough evidence of the failure that Employer couldn’t deny it had happened.
  • As I hadn’t got the job, I didn’t have to maintain an ongoing relationship with Employer.
  • It was an ideal opportunity to run an entire case as a Litigant in Person and if I screwed it up, I could withdraw with only my time/energy lost.

I had to submit my complaint relatively quickly as there is a limited time that disability discrimination complaints can be taken in employment and that includes allowing the employer reasonable opportunity to investigate before escalating to the next stages.

Data Protection Act – Subject Access Request

Before I submitted my complaint I made a Subject Access Request (sent on day 25) for any personal data Employer had about me under the Data Protection Act.  To avoid delay I made payment of £10 and enclosed a scan of my passport and a utility bill for Employer’s checks upfront.

Complaint Letter

On Day 28 I sent my complaint letter which loosely followed a “letter before action” format with the following structure:

  • Paragraph summarising the nature of the complaint and which laws I was citing.
    • Complaint for ‘failure to make reasonable adjustments‘ under the Equality Act 2010 on the date of interview.
  • Declaration in legalese that I am a disabled person with details and impact and relevance of my impairment.
    • I confirm that I am a disabled person under the ambit of Section 6 of the Equality Act
    • I defined my level and age of acquisition of deafness.
    • I explained even with hearing aids I have difficulties understanding and processing speech, especially from unfamiliar speakers.
  • Chronology of events:
    • Disclosing my disability before interview.
    • Adjustments not being provided during interview.
    • Reporting adjustment failure to HR-Junior and requesting mitigation.
    • Response from HR-Senior including Chair saying I wasn’t disadvantaged.
  • Explaining the issues
    • I believed I had disclosed correctly before interview.
    • Why I wasn’t convinced filing one email explained the failure.
    • How the Panel Chair’s response was inappropriate and why.
    • Impact of the adjustment failure on me.
  • Remedy (what they needed to do to make amends):
    • Non financial requests:
      • Anonymised interview scoring data for all the interview candidates so I could compare my performance (without adjustments) compared to other candidates and understand the appointment decision.
      • Employer to review their systems so that other disabled or deaf people’s adjustment requests would not be lost in future.
      • A written apology for the failure to make adjustments and the Panel Chair making an inappropriate judgement about disadvantage.
    • Loss of Earnings‘ (loss of chance at being appointed)
      • Showed workings for calculating the salary minus tax and insurance plus benefits like  pension contributions. I then halved that figure to reflect 50% chance of appointment.
      • Assumed 12 months of lost earnings and listed reasons why as a deaf person it is harder for me to find employment compared to a non-disabled person.
    • Injury to Feelings
      • I just said “at the top end of the lower Vento band” rather than specifying an amount.
  • Response
    • Citing short timescales I requested acknowledgement in 7 working days and a full response in 15 working days.

Employer’s Initial Response –  offering settlement

Day 45 – To my surprise the employer made an immediate offer of settlement in a letter which:

  • Acknowledged that Employer failed to provide the adjustment,
  • Made a pretty good and genuine apology,
  • Claimed I didn’t actually suffer any “legally definable” losses,
  • Offered a significant amount of financial compensation of 15% of the loss of earnings and an amount at the lower end of the lowest Vento band.

However this compensation was on condition that I agreed not to talk about the discrimination that occurred, settlement offer/terms and accepted within 14 days.

Confidentiality in settlements

Making a generous sounding offer of financial compensation tied to restrictive confidentiality (gagging) clauses with a tight timescale for acceptance is a very common tactic from defendants. Many claimants are intimidated by this, especially if the defendants have expensive lawyers or claimants’ legal advisers are supporting the ‘status quo’. I have learned it is often worth making a counter-offer and trying to push back against terms of settlement that you do not like and not worrying too much about the timescales as long as you make a response in this time.

Negotiating confidentiality in settlement

After getting some help from some friends with the wording, I wrote back to HR-Boss at Employer on day 58 to say that I welcomed the apologies,  prompt offer to settle and financial terms but I wished to discuss the confidentiality elements. I stressed that I was happy to not identify Employer or their staff but I wanted the right to be able to write about what happened including details of the complaint and eventual outcome.

HR-Boss and I exchanged several emails with different drafts around confidentiality. The legalese for some of them clearly did not say what HR-Boss was claiming. I responded to each unacceptable draft with an polite and persistent explanation of why it was not suitable and reminded her what my acceptable terms were. She had to go away to deal with her legal advisers a few times. I was also unwell for a week or two so there was some delay caused by that.

Eventually on day 77 HR-Boss sent me some draft legal wording which seemed to be acceptable which then had to be sent to Employer’s legal advisers for addition to the final settlement agreement.

ACAS Early Conciliation Service – keeping claim open

While waiting for the settlement agreement I realised I was running out of time and had to file with the ACAS Early Conciliation Service to stop the clock. All communication with ACAS was by email and I was able to let the Conciliator know we were 90% of the way to settlement so she held-off on contacting Employer for up to 28 days.

I let HR-Boss know I had done this as a formality.

Settlement bureaucracy – seemingly endless

On day 84 I received an email from HR-Boss saying she was posting two copies of the settlement agreement and Employer wanted me to seek independent legal advice at their expense. I was a bit thrown by this, but having done some research, this seems to be an ACAS requirement for settlements.

A friend recommended a solicitor who I contacted immediately and corresponded with for about a week (day 90) before my case was assigned to a ‘legal executive‘ who contacted me for a copy of the settlement agreement. I heard nothing for over a week, so I sent an email asking for a response, and only then (day 100) got told I needed to send copies of my passport or driving licence and a utility bill “for checks”. This annoyed me because I had repeatedly asked what documents the legal advisers needed and neither had addressed that question. I was away from home so it was a further 4 days (day 104) till I could email over the documents. Meanwhile HR-Boss was pressuring me for the signed settlement and adviser’s certificate – all I could do was say “legal adviser being slow” and agree to keep chasing.

To be fair to her, once I sent the documents, the Legal Executive promptly on day 105 sent me a summary of what each section of the settlement meant in plain English with a suggestion of one amendment to ensure I was not liable for tax on my compensation payment. She did not address the confidentiality elements I had explained my terms on, so we spent a further 10 days exchanging emails until I was sure she had taken those fully into account resulting in a slight amendment to that wording. I was asking something fairly unusual for a claimant so this was worthwhile being careful with.

On day 112 I received the ACAS early conciliation certificate by email. I had forgotten to ask for an extension of two weeks which would probably have been granted. I thought I now had about a calendar month which I calculated as about day 143 to issue an ET1 form to the employment tribunal at a cost of £250 to keep my case legally open [note: employment tribunal fees have since been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court].

By day 114 I was happy with the advice and thought I could just ask for the signed adviser’s certificate and wrangle the amendments and final copies with HR-Boss directly, but Legal Executive explained she  had to see the amended settlement before she could sign the certificate – which does make sense. She also explained that she was on leave from that afternoon till day 125. I sent the requested amendments to HR-Boss and let her know Legal Executive would be away on leave. HR-Boss replied saying she would send my amendments to Employer’s legal advisers. I suggested updated settlements were emailed to me – quicker than post.

The updated settlement was sent to me by email on day 117. I sent the settlement to Legal Executive for her return from holiday on day 122. Legal Executive emailed me on day 126 asking for a final confirmation that I was happy with the settlement. I did this and she very quickly sent me a scan of her advisers certificate.

I signed and dated the settlement, scanned my signature and rebuilt the whole thing as a single PDF and sent it to HR-Boss. She replied to say they need original documents and that Employer would date them – I queried the need for original documents but Employer apparently insisted. I emailed Legal Executive and asked her to send her certificate to Employer by post and printed, signed and posted two copies of the settlement to Employer myself.  I email HR-Boss to let her know both sets of papers in the post and received an out of office saying she was away for a week… (Day 131)

Day 138: I receive an email from HR-Boss saying she’s received all the papers, is sending me an original signed copy of their agreement with copy of adviser’s certificate and the settlement payment has been put in my bank account. I check my account and send an email back to HR-Boss confirming I have received the settlement payment. On day 139 I receive a copy of the signed settlement agreement in the post.

First flight with a scooter

Today I’m flying out of LAX and into Gatwick, a trip I’ve taken before. This time, however, I am traveling with my new electric mobility scooter for the first time. In my naivety, I thought this wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do since I made sure that I got a scooter that would fold away and with a battery that met the requirements for plane travel. Of course, I was wrong. There was no way of registering that I was bringing the scooter on the airlines online system so I had to phone them. It started easily enough, with her taking my details and finding my reservation. She said she needed to ask for advice from a colleague about what she needed to record, and I got a bit worried that she hadn’t dealt with mobility devices before. My experience is that people that aren’t used to dealing with mobility devices don’t know the rules particularly well, and argue that you can’t do things that are actually permitted.

The first stumbling block was her telling me that I needed to check in my scooter at the baggage counter. I wanted to take it to the gate since I prefer not to have my mobility dependent on wheelchair assistance that as often as not treats me as luggage. We had a short back and forth about why I had to do that before she went off again to consult a colleague. While she was on the phone I found the section of the Norwegian website that said that in most places I could gate check my scooter. When she came back she reiterated that I had to check it in, but when I read her the section she recanted and said that I might be able to take it though if the staff at check in permitted it.

Then she asked what kind of battery I had. I told her that it was a non-spillable lithium Ion battery 288 watt hours. At that point she said that I wasn’t permitted to travel with a battery over 100 watt hours. I said that was incorrect and that the regulations state that I’m permitted to carry up to 300 watt hours. Unfortunately, this isn’t displayed anywhere on Norwegian’s website – though several other airlines do include this information. I told her that I have a letter from my consultant and a safety certificate for the battery. She said that I was permitted 2 batteries of up to 160 watt hours, but that they couldn’t allow me to take a single battery of 300 watt hours. The conversation got pretty circular – with me telling her that the FAA regulations said I was allowed a 300 battery and her telling me that it wasn’t possible. In the end she said she could add the electric wheelchair to my booking, but I may not be permitted to take the batteries because they were too large. It was very frustrating indeed. Not least because I was on the phone for a good half hour and got absolutely nowhere.

At that point, I decided to go look into the regulations further. Fortunately, the scooter manufacturer had a link to the FAA regs and the ‘pack safe‘ information. It is the US regulations that apply, specifically 49 CFR 175.10(a)(17). It says I can have a 300watt battery and a spare. The other thing I found when looking around the website was a phone number for help dealing with disability related issues in travel. I called it and a delightful woman answered, took my details and said she would call Norwegian on my behalf. I should be hearing from her later today.

At this stage I’m pretty sure that I will get on the plane with the scooter and batteries, but I’m a bit pissed that it has taken this much time and physical/emotional energy to sort it out. This is disability work. Stuff that you have to do in order to do perfectly ordinary things that everyone else takes for granted. It is time-consuming, anxiety producing and disabling. It doesn’t need to be this way. I’m frustrated that it is.

How to prepare for pre-employment occupational health appointments

This blog does not constitute legal advice

The Equality Act 2010 changed the law so that employers are usually obliged to wait until after they have made a job offer to ask about absences and other health related information.  Nevertheless, when someone discloses a disability or other health issue that may affect the performance of their duties or may require that adjustments are made, occupational health providers will usually be involved.  In a former life, as a HR consultant, I talked to or met with 6 occupational health doctors and nurses.  As an employee, I’ve been referred to a further 6 to discuss my own health and disabilities.  Having experienced both sides of this, I thought it would be helpful to put together some advice for others doing the same.

Filling in the health form:

  • Answer the questions put there honestly
  • If your answer doesn’t neatly fit into one box or the other write a short note
  • Send it back directly to the occupational health provider if that is an option
  • If you have previous occupational health reports or access to work reports that detail adjustments that you need, send those in too.

Preparing to see the doctor

  • Make a list of any health conditions or impairments that you have – even if they weren’t on the initial form
  • Decide which of these you want to disclose.
  • Make a list of the medications that you take (you don’t need to hand this over, but you could refer to it if they ask for this information)
  • Make a list of the potential impacts of your medical conditions, impairments or disabilities on your new job
  • Make copies of previous occupational health reports and access to work reports to take with you
  • Think about whether you need or want any adjustments to your work environment – if there are, think about how these link to your health conditions or impairments.
  • Find a friend/therapist/partner and talk through the link between your health condition or impairment and the adjustments you need.  This should help you to clarify the information you need to share and to feel more confident about the link between your health/impairment and the adjustments that you need.
  • Lots of people find this kind of appointment stressful, take care of yourself and ensure you have support around to call on if you need it.
  • You are entitled to see the report before it is sent to your employer. Always ask for the report to be sent to you first. 

Seeing the doctor

  • Do your best to answer questions that they ask clearly
  • If you can, link the reasonable adjustments that you need to the questions that they are asking and to the impact of your medical condition, impairment or disability.
  • Ask the doctor whether they can think of other adjustments that might be helpful for you – you know your medical condition better, but chances are they will know the employer and the kinds of adjustments that are easily made much better than you will.

Once you get the report

  • If they have factual errors or have missed out important details point this out.
  • If there is information in the report that you would prefer was kept private, say so.
  • Remember, you don’t actually have to disclose the report at all, though it is usually helpful if you do.
  • If they recommend contacting access to work, do so quickly.
  • Be prepared to be asked to meet to discuss the contents of the report with your line manager.

 

Occupational Health reports are usually helpful for recommending workplace adjustments so that people can work effectively. Where recommended adjustments are not made, they can provide evidence to the employment tribunal of failure to make reasonable adjustments.  While appointments with medics are stressful for most people, the pre-employment occupational health appointment is usually supportive and a way of ensuring that your new employer is providing all the support that you need.

Reasonable adjustments – travel by air

I have a (hopefully temporary) mobility issue that has meant that over the last 9 months or so I’ve been using special assistance when flying.  The experience has been partially wonderful as I have been able to travel without the pain that standing and walking would have caused. Unfortunately, it has also been pretty horrifying, especially at some airports – notably Stanstead and Boston – where I have been treated like luggage and deposited at various points around the airport.

So, what went well?

  • I got to my flights on time
  • I didn’t have to do any more walking than I could manage reasonably easily
  • In three of my eight journeys, I was ‘allowed’ to buy water once I got past security
  • The staff were almost always lovely
  • At Gatwick there is a lovely area for people to sit in relative quiet while waiting
  • Both Gatwick and Heathrow had the same person taking me from the special assistance area to the gate (and on to the plane if I’d needed that), which was very helpful.

Despite how positive an experience I have had at airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, I certainly did not feel that I was receiving a service on an equal basis to non-disabled service users.  I felt lucky if I was allowed to buy water (something I have always done without trouble when not using special assistance). I didn’t even try to go to any of the shops or restaurants in the terminal because it was clear that wasn’t part of the service – but for anyone else using the airport, it was a big part of the experience.  On one occasion I was waiting half an hour after the flight landed before the special assistance arrived – fortunately I stayed in my seat so while it delayed me, it didn’t mean I was standing.  On my most recent journey, I got off the plane to find a queue of people waiting for special assistance and no wheelchairs.  I find standing painful at the moment, so I sat on the floor – as far out of the way as possible – while other passengers disembarked. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable experience.

For me, the most troubling part of the experience was being treated like luggage at the side of the corridor in three airports. Stanstead was the worst, by far. Having been waiting on the plane for 30 minutes, the driver complained about not having had a break and having worked non-stop.  We arrived at the terminal and there was no-one there, but fortunately, they arrived pretty quickly. After a brief exchange between the staff (and no hello to the wheelchair users)  the other passenger and I transferred to the wheelchairs and were taken into the terminal building.  We were then deposited with a third passenger at the edge of the immigration hall. I asked what was happening next, but they said we would have to wait for staff to arrive, and gave no indication of how long that might take. We were joined by a fourth and fifth person soon thereafter.

After about 15 minutes a group of 4 staff.   They barely spoke to any of the wheelchair users, other than to find out where we had come from so they could get our luggage. They did talk among themselves at length about unfairly the workload was divided and how awful and lazy the previous staff members were. It was totally dehumanising. It was like we were inanimate objects to be wheeled around whose thoughts, feelings and opinions simply didn’t exist. We didn’t exist as people.  Conversations literally happened over our heads.  Being a (temporary) wheelchair user felt disabling because of how it transformed the way these people interacted with me, considerably more than any physical barrier that I was faced with.  I don’t see any circumstances in which a group of walking passengers would think it was acceptable to have themselves left in the corner of a room for an undetermined amount of time.  I don’t think airport staff would think it was acceptable to talk about their colleagues and work environment in the way that they did in front of people without mobility impairments. I have no idea why these things are considered acceptable and even normal for wheelchair users.

 

The other two airports where I was parked in the corner were less awful experiences.  Staff were clearly over stretched but they didn’t spend the entire time speaking to each other as though I didn’t exist.  I had several different people moving me around the space, and was literally parked in corners and corridors – but I was told when I would be collected. The communication was much better, and I was treated like a human being.

The thing is, right now I have a choice about using special assitance.  I probably could get through the airport on my own, but I would be in considerable pain and it would impact on the days following the flight. With that choice, the experience felt bad to me, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had no choice other than to use special assistance it would feel a lot worse. Especially if I were traveling with a work colleague or friend. It is a little bit soul destroying every time I do it., though.

If the equality act worked, it would be different. Until it does, I guess I’ll be grateful for those times I can buy water and get treated like a human.

Requesting reasonable adjustments – as an undergraduate

The first time I made a request for reasonable adjustments I was 19. Of course, I didn’t call it that. I had invisible impairments, and I didn’t really know what to call what I was asking for. I needed a carpet free bedroom because my asthma and dust allergy were making my life really difficult. I was struggling to cope without taking steroids, and I simply didn’t want to repeat the experience of living with carpet. So I asked the university accommodation service to give me a room without carpet. They found my request bizarre. Then annoying. Then impossible. They didn’t have any rooms without carpet, you see. Except they did. My boyfriend had one. It took several months of cajoling, calling them, showing up to speak with people and explaining the situation again and again and again to so many different people before it got sorted out.

Then one day, as if it had never been a problem at all, they allocated my room. By the time I finished my degree they had discovered a whole block of uncarpeted rooms and offered me a choice of rooms for my final year. They never apologised, though.  They also never acknowledged the impact of spending all that time fighting for what I needed on my studies or my mental health.  They expected me to be grateful, and I was.

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