Earlier this month, coffeehouse giant, Starbucks, lost a disability discrimination case against a dyslexic employee. The employee had been accused of falsifying documents, when actually she had just made a simple mistake when reading and recording a range of temperatures within the kitchen – a result of her dyslexia.
She had also been victimised by her superiors, and working in such a toxic environment eventually made her feel depressed and alienated. There are veins of sex discrimination running through the case, but the majority of the grievance relates specifically to the defendant’s dyslexia and its resulting effect on her abilities.
It’s estimated that around 10% of UK adults are affected by dyslexia. Luckily, from an employment perspective, individuals with the condition have a wealth of protection and support due to the Equality Act 2010. As with many characteristics covered by this Act, the protection is also offered to prospective and former employees.
Being dyslexic can put an employee at a disadvantage to their peers, particularly when written work and tight time frames are involved. Despite the wealth of legal protection offered to dyslexic employees, it isn’t automatically prescribed. Jenna Ide, the solicitor responsible for successfully representing the Starbucks employee in the Meseret Kumulchew vs. Starbucks case, explains:
“Dyslexia is not automatically classed as a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010, but dyslexic workers will often have little difficulty in gaining such protection as, under this Act, someone is classed as ‘disabled’ if they have a ‘mental impairment’ which has a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on their ability to carry out ‘normal day-to-day activities’.”
‘Reasonable adjustments’ are the most common form of support given to dyslexic employees. The adjustments depend on the nature of the employee’s work, but usually arise in situations where a disabled employee suffers a substantial disadvantage because of a “provision, criterion or practice”. For example, a dyslexic employee would be at a substantial disadvantage compared to their non-dyslexic peers if they were required to complete handwritten paperwork within a limited timescale.
As a result, the employer has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to avoid any disadvantages by, for example, providing speech-to-text software. The question of whether an adjustment is considered ‘reasonable’ or not involves an assessment of various factors, including the financial cost of making the adjustment and the size of the business. This legal duty means employers are obligated to treat disabled employees more favourably – reducing the chance of individuals falling by the wayside.
Time limits for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal are short, so employees who feel unsupported and therefore experience difficulties at work only have three months (less one day) from the discriminatory act or failure to claim. There are some limited circumstances where the time limit may be extended, but this is taken on a case by case basis.
Speaking on the Starbucks case, Jenna Ide, Associate Solicitor at employment law firm Thomas Mansfield Solicitors Limited, explained:
“Despite words to the contrary elsewhere, it is unlikely that the case will lead to a sudden flood of discrimination claims from dyslexic employees. However, concerned employers should consider seeking legal advice about their duties and the reasonable adjustments that they should be providing. It’s always prudent to periodically deliver training for management teams about equal opportunities, and specific dyslexia awareness training for colleagues of dyslexic employees ought to be provided.
As with any employment law issue, prevention is always better than cure. Taking constructive steps to provide a positive working environment for all employees – regardless of their abilities – will not only prevent the obvious risk of legal trouble, it can also improve productivity, morale and a sense of community. In the long run, this is worth much more than the cost of reasonable adjustments.”