There have been a number of cases recently concerning disability claims from teachers.

As an employer, it’s important to not discriminate against disabled employees and to make reasonable adjustments to allow them to carry out their role effectively. But what should employers do when an employee’s disability is clearly impacting their ability to carry out their role?

Ahmed v The Cardinal Hume Academies

In this case, the claimant, Mr Ahmed, was recruited by Teach First, which provides a fast-track route to QTS status. Mr Ahmed, whose placement involved preparing students for their GCSEs and A Levels, suffers with dyspraxia, a developmental brain disorder that manifests in difficulties with movement and coordination.

For Mr Ahmed, this means that he struggles to read and write and has ‘extreme difficulty with handwriting’ due to pain in his hands. Despite this, Teach First had approved his application and neglected to inform the school about Mr Ahmed’s condition.

Unsurprisingly, this caused issues. Although the school had received an Occupational Health Report stating that Mr Ahmed was fit to teach, it highlighted issues that he would have with handwriting. The school was concerned about this and met with Mr Ahmed on a couple of occasions to discuss their concerns. It was the conduct of these meetings that led to his appeal, as the decision was made to “suspend” Mr Ahmed so that they could seek advice and come to a decision about his training position at the school.

Believing that he had been treated in an unfair and hostile manner, Mr Ahmed submitted a formal grievance and promptly resigned. He then brought claims against the school for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination.

Arguments

At trial, Mr Ahmed brought forward a number of complaints. He maintained that:

  • He had been subject to disability discrimination contrary to section 13 and/or 15 of the Equality Act 2010. Section 13 makes it unlawful to directly discriminate because of a protected characteristic (in this case, disability). Claims under section 15 are about discrimination arising from disability unless the employer can show that their treatment of the employee is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
  • The school had failed to make reasonable adjustments for his disability, contrary to sections 20 and 21 of the Act.
  • The situation amounted to constructive unfair dismissal.
  • At one of the meetings held, he had been subject to harassment on the basis of his disability.

The Tribunal rejected Mr Ahmed’s claim, finding the above complaints to be not well-founded.

disciplinary - police investigations

Appeal

Mr Ahmed subsequently appealed the decision, arguing that the Tribunal had not properly considered section 26(4) of the Equality Act 2010 in respect of the claim for harassment. This prohibits unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant, or that violates the complainant’s dignity.

In deciding whether conduct has this effect (and therefore amounts to harassment), the Act states that each of the following must be taken into account:

(a) the claimant’s perception;

(b) the other circumstances of the case;

(c) whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.

Mr Ahmed alleged that the Tribunal had placed too much emphasis on whether it was reasonable for him to claim that the school’s conduct caused harassment, and had failed to consider how Mr Ahmed had perceived the situation and other circumstances of the case.

He also claimed that the Tribunal had erred in relation to his claim of direct disability discrimination.

Verdict

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) dismissed Mr Ahmed’s appeal. Referring to relevant case law, it stated that in harassment cases, the question of reasonableness needs to be addressed first. If a Tribunal finds that an employer’s conduct could not reasonably be said to have caused harassment, as was found in this case, then further factors need not be considered.

Furthermore, in relation to the disability discrimination claim, the EAT concluded that while the claimant’s poor handwriting was the reason for his suspension, this was an adverse effect of his disability and not a disability in and of itself. It therefore held that the school’s decision to suspend could not be viewed as discrimination directly on the basis of disability.

Jane Hallas

Head of Education Team

Expert Comment

This is another case demonstrating the challenges faced by schools when dealing with disabled teachers whose disability the school believes impacts their ability to undertake their role. Here, the school successfully defended the claims, but it again shows the importance of seeking legal advice from an Employment Law specialist on managing performance issues of disabled employees before taking any action.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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