In June 1999, Ms Sue Williams, who is totally blind, was recruited to work for J Walter Thompson (JWT) Group, as a Worldwide IT Developer. Ms Williams studied for a postgraduate diploma in computer science at Cambridge University and it was there, through the Industrial Supporters’ Club, that she made contact with the chief executive of WPP Group (JWT’s parent company) who passed her CV on to the company.
JWT was aware of Ms Williams’ disability and knew that she would require training in order to do the work for which she had been hired. However, the company was ‘ill prepared’ for her arrival, with no plan of action for the start of her employment, nor was the equipment necessary for Ms Williams to do the job in place.
Although attempts were made to set up the arrangements necessary for Ms Williams to fulfil her role, it was found that the training would take a long time and would be very expensive and so, in reality, ‘nothing much happened’. In October 2001, Ms Williams handed in her notice, saying that ‘the whole exercise has become a fruitless and despairing one’ and that she had been ‘left nowhere without any work to do’. She took her case to the Employment Tribunal (ET), which held that JWT had discriminated against her for a reason connected with her blindness and had, without justification, failed to make reasonable adjustments in compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The ET also found that she had been constructively unfairly dismissed.
JWT appealed against the decision. The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that the ET had made errors of law in reaching its decision. It should have considered whether JWT’s decisions not to exceed its training budget on account of one staff member and not to spend further sums in adapting and acquiring software were within the range of responses that a reasonable employer would have relied on as a justification for a failure to make reasonable adjustments or for less favourable treatment of a disabled employee.
However, the Court of Appeal upheld the ET’s finding that there was an unjustified failure to make reasonable adjustments. The Court found that an important factor was that JWT had employed Ms Williams to do a specific job knowing that she was totally blind and knowing that she would need specific training in order to do that job. JWT failed to investigate properly the cost and time it would take to train an unsighted person to do the job and did not supply the necessary equipment. Ms Williams was given neither work of the kind she was employed to do nor other suitable work as an alternative.
In addition, the Court of Appeal ruled that the detriment to Ms Williams on account of the discriminatory conduct was the reason for her resignation and that her constructive unfair dismissal was itself a discriminatory act relating to her disability.
Blind and Partially Sighted Employees
The Disability Discrimination (Blind and Partially Sighted People) Regulations 2003 provide that anyone who is blind or partially sighted (either certified as such by a consultant ophthalmologist or registered as such with the local authority) is considered to be disabled for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In effect, people who are partially sighted do not need to prove that this has an adverse effect on their daily lives in order to be deemed disabled under the Act.
We can help employers to review existing policies to ensure that blind and partially sighted employees and job applicants are not discriminated against.