Devil in the detail

The complexities of the Disability Discrimination Act make it easy to slip
up in practice.  There are areas in
which occupational health and personnel practitioners really need to be on
their toes.  By Paul D McMahon

Helen, who is employed as an IT support assistant in an insurance company,
has been injured in a car accident. She suffered head injuries and a broken
pelvis and as a result has permanent restriction of movement in her upper body
and learning difficulties. On her return to work she explains to Mike, her line
manager, that she can no longer take part in her favourite hobby of potholing,
and has great difficulty in carrying out household chores involving bending and
lifting. Mike, however, noticed she did not appear to have any restriction of
movement when he saw her moving computer equipment last week, but wonders if
Helen may be disabled in terms of employment legislation.

The DDA definition of disabled

A person is disabled in terms of the Disability Discrimination Act if they
suffer from, "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and
long-term adverse affect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day

Assume that Helen’s condition is’substantial and long-term’ and the question
becomes one of whether or not it is having an effect on her ability to carry
out normal day-to-day activities, a question that has been the subject of
recent case law.

In the case of Ekpe v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, 2001,
IRLR 605, the EAT highlighted that in dealing with the question the focus
should be on what a person cannot do because of their disability, rather than
what they can do.

In that particular case, which concerned a female employee, the original
tribunal decided that putting in hair rollers and applying make-up were not
normal day-to-day activities. That decision was overturned by the EAT which
said the question that should be addressed is whether the activity can be
considered abnormal or unusual. They observed that the Guidance to the
Disability Discrimination Act states that an activity is not normal if it is
only carried out by a particular person or group of people, and stresses that
just because the activity is mostly done by one gender, does not mean it is not

In Helen’s case, it would appear that doing household chores would be viewed
as a normal day-to-day activity; but not potholing.

The significance of how well Helen is able to carry out normal day-to-day
activities at work, such as lifting computer equipment, was addressed by the
Court of Session in the case of Law Hospital NHS Trust v Rush, 2001, IRLR 611,
when it was stated, again with reference to the guidance to the DDA, that work
duties were not day-to-day activities. But where work duties include some
element of day-to-day activities, such as lifting objects, this information
could be relevant to the credibility of an employee who is claiming he or she
cannot carry out a particular activity.

Therefore, Mike’s observation that Helen was able to move computer equipment
would not be relevant to the definition of disability, but could be relevant to
whether she is telling the truth or exaggerating about her lack of ability to
carry out household chores.

Substantial disadvantages

The following month, disciplinary proceedings were instigated against Helen
after allegations that she made racist remarks to a fellow employee who is from
an ethnic minority.

Under the company’s disciplinary procedure, Helen is suspended and a
disciplinary hearing is held. A solicitor’s letter arrives saying Helen feels
discriminated against because, in view of her learning difficulties, she did
not understand the letter she received explaining the disciplinary procedure to
her, she was intimidated and felt unable to express herself fully because of
the formal nature of the hearing, and because she was not permitted to bring
along a friend in place of a work colleague. Mike, however, recalls that a
long-standing and trusted colleague of Helen’s explained the contents of the
letter and accompanied her to the hearing at which it was observed that Helen
had been very articulate in her own defence.

Section 6 of the Disability Discrimination Act provides that, where an
employer’s working arrangements or premises place a disabled person at a
substantial disadvantage, then a duty to make reasonable adjustments arises to
avoid the disadvantageous effect. Failure to make such reasonable adjustments
is discriminatory, unless it can be justified by a reason which is both
material to the circumstances of the case and is substantial. Therefore, the
duty to make reasonable adjustments only arises where an employee is placed at
a substantial disadvantage.

A similar situation arose in the case of Cave v Goodwin & Another, 2001,
EWCA Civ391. In that case the applicant was a care assistant in a residential
care home and had epilepsy and learning difficulties. Allegations of sexual
misconduct were made against the applicant and the employer initiated
disciplinary proceedings, similar to those used by Helen’s employer. The
applicant received a letter informing him he was suspended and that there was
to be a disciplinary hearing. The applicant did not receive any oral
explanation of the charge and the process from his employer, which also refused
his request to be accompanied by a friend (not a work colleague) at the
disciplinary hearing.

The question the tribunal first considered was whether or not the applicant
had been put at a substantial disadvantage by this alleged discrimination.
Although he had received notice of the suspension and the disciplinary hearing
by letter, it was found he had been able to read most of the letter himself,
and the entire contents of the letter were explained to him by his colleagues.
He had had an understanding of the disciplinary hearing and was able to express
himself at the hearing.

The tribunal therefore found the applicant suffered no substantial
disadvantage as a result of the alleged discrimination, and therefore the duty
to make reasonable adjustments did not arise.

In Helen’s case, the employer may have done better to modify the
disciplinary procedure by explaining the suspension and the arrangements for
the disciplinary hearing orally, as well as in letter form and allowing her to
be accompanied by a friend at the hearing, rather than a fellow employee (the
guidance to the DDA recommends that a person with learning difficulties be
accompanied by a friend at such a hearing).

They might also have considered making the hearing itself less formal with
regular breaks for Helen to consult with the friend who accompanied her.

The employer could argue, however, that the duty to make reasonable
adjustments did not arise, as she did not suffer a substantial disadvantage.

They could point out that the disciplinary letter was fully explained to
Helen by a trusted colleague, it was this colleague who accompanied her to the
disciplinary hearing, and the procedure did not seem to prevent Helen from
expressing her point of view.

Reasonable adjustments

Subsequently, Helen’s condition deteriorates and she goes on long-term
sickness absence. Following the company’s long-term sickness absence procedure,
a report is obtained from the company’s occupational health department. This
report indicates that it is unlikely that Helen will ever be able to return to
work and she is dismissed on the grounds of ill health.

Helen claimed disability discrimination, claiming reasonable adjustments had
not been given serious consideration by the company.

As stated above, section 6 of the DDA requires that reasonable adjustments
be made when a disabled person suffers a substantial disadvantage, unless the
failure to do so can be justified.

The importance of proper consideration of adjustments which can be made, to
the question of whether or not it was reasonable to make them, and whether or
not failure to do so can be justified, was emphasised in the case of Fu v
London Borough of Camden, 2001, IRLR 186. In that case, the applicant had
suffered from two accidents at work. She proposed a number of adjustments be
made to her working conditions, including a voice-activated computer, a
hands-free phone, an adapted chair and easy access shelving.

The employer did obtain a report from occupational health and the OH
assessor’s position was that they could not indicate when the applicant was
going to be able to return to work. The applicant was therefore given a choice
of ill health retirement or dismissal.

This case went to the EAT, which observed that as dismissal itself is not an
act of discrimination under the Act, the only matter they were required to
consider was whether reasonable adjustments should have been made.

The EAT considered that the employer had discriminated against the applicant
because they had failed to consider the extent to which the proposed
adjustments could have allowed her to return to work.

When an employer is faced with the prospect of considering adjustments, the
possible adjustments should be discussed with both the employee and the medical

The focus should be whether the adjustments will make a real difference –
will they lead to the disabled person suffering no substantial disadvantage by
reason of their disability, compared to a non-disabled employee? Investigations
should then be conducted as to the effect of these possible adjustments on both
the employee and the workplace, with a view to establishing whether they can
reasonably be made.

Where appropriate, the employer ought also to consider implementing
adjustments for a trial period as an alternative to dismissal.

Paul D McMahon is a solicitor with Harper McLeod

Comments are closed.