An employee suffering with dyslexia has been successful in a disability discrimination claim against her employer, Starbucks, after she was accused of falsifying documents.

A tribunal found Meseret Kumulchew had been discriminated against after she made various errors as a result of the difficulties she faced with routine workplace tasks.

Reasonable Adjustments

Meseret Kumulchew was a supervisor at a branch of Starbucks and was responsible for taking the temperature of fridges and water at specific times and entering the results in a duty roster. She was accused of falsifying the documents after erroneously entering incorrect information.

Meseret Kumulchew was given fewer duties at her branch in Clapham Junction, London and was informed she would need to retrain. This left her feeling suicidal. As a result, she took Starbucks to an employment tribunal alleging disability discrimination, claiming she had always disclosed to her employer that she was dyslexic and suffered with problems at work.

The employment tribunal found Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for Ms Kumulchew’s disability and had therefore discriminated against her because of the effects of her dyslexia and her ability to carry out her day to day duties at work. The tribunal also said Ms Kumulchew had been victimised and there appeared to be little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues on behalf of Starbucks.

Disability discrimination law

Within the vast and complex realm of disability discrimination law, the main claims can be summarised as follows:

  • Direct discrimination
  • Discrimination arising from a disability
  • Indirect discrimination
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Victimisation
  • Harassment

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as follows: “A person (P) has a disability if P has a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his/her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities“. (Section 6(1), EqA 2010.)

Is Dyslexia a disability (or always a disability)?

Dyslexia, like many medical conditions, is part of a spectrum and may be mild or much more serious. Whether dyslexia is deemed to be a disability under the Equality Act 2010 definition will be dependent upon the severity of the individual’s condition. If it has “substantial” affects on his/her ability to carry out normal day-day activities then it will likely be a disability. If not, then likely it will not be. This is an area where each case will need to be reviewed on its own facts.

Duty to make reasonable adjustments

This case appears to have focused mainly on the duty to make reasonable adjustments. This duty arises where a provision, criterion or practice applied by the employer puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled. The employer must take such steps as it is reasonable to take to avoid the disadvantage. It can also arise where a disabled person would, but for the employer’s provision of an auxiliary aid, be put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled. Here the employer must take such steps as are reasonable to provide the auxiliary aid.

In this case, the employment tribunal found that Starbucks failed to make reasonable adjustments for Ms Kumulchew’s disability, as instead of finding ways to support her and assist her in fulfilling her duties, they accused her of falsifying records and treated her unfavourably.

The judgment against Starbucks was on the question of liability only and there will now be a separate hearing to determine any compensation.

The company said it was committed to having a “diverse and inclusive workforce” that “feel welcome and comfortable in our stores”.

Dr Kate Saunders, CEO of the British Dyslexia Association, said: “Many dyslexics are struggling in the work place with very high levels of anxiety because employers do not have the training or the awareness to make adjustments for them.”

Summary

This is a useful reminder on the duty to make reasonable adjustments and how an employer can fall foul of this legal obligation. In this case, Starbucks thought that the employee was falsifying documents but she actually had a medical problem. Some proper investigation and advice might have highlighted the medical problem and how the role could have been adjusted. All of the cost and stress of the litigation could have been avoided (as well as the bad publicity).

Reasonable adjustments should be made for dyslexic employees where applicable and thorough thought given by employers as to how they can help their disadvantaged employees in their day to day duties at work.

If you are an employer (or employee) and have any questions regarding reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, then please feel free to call our employment team here at Paris Smith LLP for advice.