A Starbucks employee has recently won a disability discrimination claim against her employer after she was accused of falsifying documents.

Meseret Kumulchew worked as a supervisor at a Starbucks branch in Clapham, south-west London. As part of her duties, she was required to enter a record of refrigerator and water temperatures at specific times on a duty roster. Ms Kumulcew’s dyslexia meant that she had difficulties reading, writing and telling the time. After recording the incorrect information, Starbucks accused Ms Kumulchew of falsifying documents. The Tribunal heard that Ms Kumulchew had been given lesser duties and told to retrain, which left her feeling suicidal.

The Tribunal held that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for Ms Kumulchew’s disability and had discriminated against her because of the effects of her dyslexia. It also found that Ms Kumulchew had been victimised by her employer and there appeared to be little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues.

Whilst the existence of a disability (in most cases anyway) has to be determined on individual facts, dyslexia is a learning difficulty which is highly likely to fall within the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 (an impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities). Dyslexia Action defines dyslexia as ‘a specific learning difficulty that primarily affects the ability to learn to read and spell. It often runs in families and stems from a difficulty in processing the sounds in words’. A person with dyslexia may read and write very slowly, confuse the order of letters in words, have difficulty taking notes and can find it hard to carry out a sequence of instructions. On the other hand, dyslexic people often have strong visual, creative and problem solving skills.

Dyslexia is disability which may not be obvious to an employer and is often not well understood. Managers often brand the work of dyslexic employees as careless and assume that they are just not trying hard enough. The reality, however, is that a dyslexic employee is probably unable to identify problems with their work, such as spelling mistakes, without external assistance. There are simple adjustments that can be put in place, however, to provide this assistance. More sophisticated spelling and grammar checkers than the standard pc packages can be installed, and peer proof-reading can be used (indeed many non-dyslexic employees would benefit from peer proof-reading of important documents). Other adjustments might include making sure an employee has a recording device for meetings, giving extra time to complete a task and giving short, clear instructions.

Employers need to foster a culture where employees feel able to openly talk about something like dyslexia; this is particularly important where the disability may not be obvious. It is also essential that employers should take the time to understand the effects of a dyslexia on a particular employee, and should not assume that they know about the difficulties faced by that person because they have had some prior experience of dyslexia.

The British Dyslexia Association estimates that one in ten people are dyslexic to a greater or lesser degree, although many have not been formally diagnosed. Given the potentially huge number of individuals that have dyslexia, this case will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to employers to engage with the difficulties faced by dyslexic employees and to provide them with appropriate support, not just to assume that they have poor attention to detail or lack motivation.

If you have any questions or would like further information on the issues discussed in this article, then please contact our Employment department.

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Lucy McLynn

Partner and Head of Employment

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Posted on 19/02/2016 in Legal Updates

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