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Services: Examples on stammering

Right to be heard
Rudeness or mockery
Writing what you want to say?
Automated telephone systems
Voice analysis on insurance claims
Cost of taking longer
More examples

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.

News report: Sainsburys petrol station (July 2017)
Petrol pumpsA civil servant claims that staff at a petrol station mimicked his stammer when he had difficulty pronouncing his pump number, and laughed at his speech. According to him one of them said: 'Why don't you have another beer?' and they didn't seem too bothered when he said he had a stammer. It was 8:45am and his two daughters were in the car. Sainsbury's are reported to have responded that they have apologised to him and are investigating the matter. (Eastern Daily Press, 12th July 2017; ITV News 12th July including video).
This might well be harassment under the Equality Act 2010, and perhaps direct discrimination and/or discrimination arising from disability. However it sounds like the staff initially thought he was drunk. If so, the legal position is more straightforward if the mistreatment continued after he told them he had a stammer. It might be harder to say there was a breach of the Equality Act if staff apologised as soon as they realised he had a stammer (in which case the customer would in any event feel less aggrieved).

News report: bus driver laughs a passenger's stammer (March 2017)
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 head down and started smirking and laughing at her. She said to him, 'Do you think it's funny to laugh at people with disabilities?', and then just walked up the bus, really upset. She later abandoned her shopping trip after being left in tears by the humiliation. (From the Stoke Sentinel, 11 March 2017).

Mirror articleNews report: Coffee shop mocks stammer on customer's cup (January 2017)
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 barista allegedly wrote RRR...ichard on the cup. The customer found this extremely offensive and humiliating. He complained on the Starbucks Facebook page. The barista was suspended pending disciplinary action, and Starbucks apologised to the customer. Disability Rights UK said that if he wished to pursue a legal case it would be happy to put him in contact with a suitable lawyer. (Reported in the Mirror 20/1/17, Daily Mail 20/1/17.)
This is likely to be harassment under the Equality Act 2010, and quite possibly direct discrimination. Also Starbucks' system of having to say your name when ordering can be a problem generally for people who stammer, and may itself be indirect discrimination or a breach of the reasonable adjustment duty under the Equality Act.

Case study: helpline laughing and saying 'You can talk perfectly well if you want to'
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 replied: "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 and the lady was taken off the helpline for re-training. They also contacted the British Stammering Association for information to help them build stammering into their general training courses for helpline staff.
This is likely to be harassment under the Equality Act 2010, and perhaps direct discrimination.

News report: Pretending not to understand, laughing and hanging up phone (October 2008)
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 'Sorry?' although they could understand him, then started to laugh at him and hung up. After the sports station was contacted, managers listened to the recorded call and took disciplinary action against the call handler. As well as giving an apology, the station offered the caller free subscription to the channel for a year. (From the Manchester Evening News 6/10/08: 'Fan gets apology from Setanta' (external link))
This is likely to be harassment and direct discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

Case study: pub staff refusing to serve and insulting customer
A man with a severe speech impediment was refused service at a local pub and subjected to derogatory and insulting remarks by a member of the bar staff, who alleged he was drunk. A meeting between the two parties was set up by the Disability Rights Commission and once the issue became clear a full apology was given by the bar manager who also agreed to his staff undertaking disability training. (This is a case resolved by the former Disability Conciliation Service.)

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 next section below ('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 see Voice Risk Analysis.

More examples

For more examples, see 'Guidelines for service providers'.


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Last updated 7th January, 2012 (part update 14th July 2017)