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Is the stammer a disability?

This page outlines how far a stammer counts as a 'disability' within the Equality Act 2010. It gives links to more detail.

Note: different 'disability' tests apply for other legislation, such as welfare benefits.

Why is it important?

To claim for disability discrimination, a person normally needs to have a 'disability' as defined in the Equality Act. If the stammer is a disability, the Act gives anti-discrimination rights in respect of employment, services and education. Being perceived to have a disability can sometimes also give rights.

'Disability' test is not difficult to meet

It is reasonably easy for a stammer to come within the Equality Act. Broadly, a stammer is covered if it has a substantial adverse effect on one's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, such as having a conversation or using the telephone. (The full definition is below.)

This is not a difficult test to meet. 'Substantial' means only 'more than minor or trivial'. The example below clearly illustrates that the stammer need not be severe.

"...A man has had a stammer since childhood. He does not stammer all the time, but his stammer, particularly in telephone calls, goes beyond the occasional lapses in fluency found in the speech of people who do not have the impairment. However, this effect can often be hidden by his avoidance strategies. He tries to avoid making or taking telephone calls where he believes he will stammer, or he does not speak as much during the calls. He sometimes tries to avoid stammering by substituting words, or by inserting extra words or phrases.

"In these cases there are substantial adverse effects on the person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day communication activities."

Para D17 of 2011 statutory guidance.

Might not be disputed that it is a 'disability'

Any case will depend on the individual facts. However, in various tribunal cases it has been accepted without argument that the person's stammer had a substantial effect (see Cases on stammering). Many more cases never get to court, and the employer (or service provider etc) will often accept the stammer is a disability.

Sometimes though, the employer etc will dispute whether the stammer is a disability. If there is a dispute and the case gets to a tribunal or court, it is for the claimant to bring evidence to show that his or her stammer meets the legal test. There are various cases where the tribunal held a stammer was a disability. Or the claimant may be able to show that the employer etc (mistakenly) perceived there to be a disability - see next paragraph.

For some types of claim, namely 'direct discrimination' and harassment, it may be enough that the employer etc perceived there to be a disability. It will often be a good idea to claim for 'perceived disability' as an alternative, in addition to arguing that one has an actual disability which falls within the Equality Act definition.

What if I'm not sure whether it's a disability?

Even if a person is not sure whether their stammer is a 'disability', it will often make sense to go on the basis that it is. Ultimately the court will decide, if it gets that far - normally it won't get that far. However, if someone is discriminated against in relation to their stammer, or requires reasonable adjustments, there is likely to be at least a respectable argument that the stammer is a 'disability' (or perceived to be one).

Guide to more detail

Basic legal definition

Under s.6 EqA a person (the legislation calls the person 'P') has a 'disability' if:

"(a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and
(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."

Though all elements of the definition must be met, the only ones which will usually be at issue with stammering are whether it has a 'substantial' effect as regards 'normal day-to-day' activities.

The key point will usually be whether the effect is 'substantial - see 'Substantial effect'. 'Substantial' means only 'more than minor or trivial', so the threshold is not high. Other elements of the definition:

Hidden effects are also relevant

Even hiding your stammer, perhaps while appearing outwardly fluent, should be able to count towards there being a substantial effect. This could include avoiding situations, speaking less, or switching words.

Therapy or aids: 'deduced effects'.

Effects are taken as they would be without treatment or aids. So if a person uses an electronic device (such as delayed auditory feedback), one looks how the stammer would be without the device. It may also be possible to disregard speech techniques which are being used. See Therapy, and using speech techniques or devices.

Fluctuating effects

A stammer can be a 'disability' even though it does not happen all the time:

No registration is required.

You do not need to register as disabled. The question is just whether you meet the legal definition.

Stammering which starts in adulthood

Stammering normally starts in early childhood ('developmental stammering'). Much less common is Stammering starting in adulthood. The latter may give rise to further legal issues, in particular whether it meets the requirement of being 'long-term'.

Statutory guidance

There is a 40 page document of 'statutory guidance' on what counts as a disability. This is not legally binding, but must be taken into account by the courts. See 2011 guidance.

A different guidance document applies for Northern Ireland.

Different 'disability' definitions elsewhere

The 'disability' definition discussed here applies to rights under the Equality Act 2010. There are different disability tests for rights under other legislation, for example on whether a person is entitled to a Blue Badge for parking, or on welfare benefits.

"I don't like to be seen as disabled."

If you want to rely on the Equality Act, you normally need to say you are 'disabled' as defined in it. But this is just a legal definition for the purposes of that Act, to decide who is protected from discrimination. It does not mean you lack ability. It seems that a stammer can be a 'disability' even though the person is an excellent communicator (see 'Substantial effect': May be an excellent communicator).

Under the 'social model' of disability, it may well be people's attitudes which disable a person, eg attitudes of employers who fail to look past the stammer.

See further Reluctance to be seen as 'disabled'.

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Last updated 24th March, 2013