Disabled worker awarded £45,000 after employer failed to install voice recognition software

17 Jan 2019 By Lauren Brown

Experts warn employers must not leave staff ‘to their own devices’ in making reasonable adjustments

A disabled worker whose employer failed to provide voice recognition software to ease pain that “left her in tears” has been awarded an overall sum of £45,000 by Hull Employment Tribunal.

Yorkshire-based Haxby Group Practice was found to have unfairly dismissed Michelle Proctor, who suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis, after she resigned from her role because necessary adjustments were not made.

The ET heard Proctor had repeatedly asked for a voice recognition service to be installed on her computer that would have reduced the amount of typing needed for her role. The software was eventually installed, but only after two years in which Proctor took multiple periods of sick leave because of the pain in her hands.

Employment Judge Maidment ruled: “Given that a material and indeed very significant cause of the claimant’s resignation was her having been subjected to unlawful discrimination, not least in the prolonged failure to make reasonable adjustments, that dismissal must also be categorised as a further act of unlawful discrimination.”

Proctor started working for the GP practice in 1994 as a clerical assistant, and had declared to her employer she had undergone carpal tunnel decompression surgery, had arthritis in both hands and tendonitis of the wrists and arms.

A 2015 merger between the Haxby surgery and another in York led to an increase in Proctor’s workload, the tribunal heard, and she was absent between 11 and 31 March that year due to pain in both hands.

In May, a letter from occupational health recommended that voice recognition software called Dragon Professional Natural Speaking should be installed to help manage her condition. 

Proctor contacted HR manager Maureen Barraclough to investigate the acquisition of the software. By 24 April, Proctor had sourced quotes and arranged a demonstration.

Between 11 June 2015 and 27 January 2016, Proctor was absent from work due to her condition but continued to seek to make progress regarding the software. Proctor spoke to her line manager, John James McEvoy, about staff training on the software, which McEvoy said he was happy to explore but had to wait for Proctor’s return to work to restart the project. Proctor told the tribunal she was clear she wanted the software in place for her return to work. 

In a letter to Barraclough in November 2015, Proctor wrote: “The delay in providing support to my working environment has been instrumental in the severity of my injury. I would also like to clarify the reason I did not come in whilst on the sick to train on the new software, is that my hands will be required to operate the keyboard in conjunction with the voice recognition and at this moment the pain would be too great.” 

Proctor attended a return-to-work meeting with Barraclough on 27 January 2016. No steps had been taken to acquire the voice recognition software. Proctor began a phased return to work with regular breaks. The tribunal was told Barraclough said: “[Proctor] was competent to sort [the software], it was her project, I did not want to undermine her.” 

In August 2016, Proctor was offered and accepted the alternative role of research manager, which meant 70 rather than 80 per cent of her time was spent on keyboard tasks.

In a meeting between Barraclough, McEvoy and Proctor on 26 April 2017, it was suggested Proctor switch to a flexible working arrangement where she was paid for the hours she worked. However, she was told she would lose her sick pay entitlement under the new arrangement, due in part to her Bradford Factor score. 

Proctor said she wanted to stay on her permanent contract. After a period of sick leave, she raised a formal grievance on 15 May 2017. During this period of illness, she had not received full pay.

Proctor said that while the software had finally been installed on 2 May 2017, she had not been trained on it and was still expected to carry out her duties.

At a grievance meeting on 6 July 2017, Proctor said she had lost trust and confidence in her employer. 

She said she was disappointed by the subsequent investigation into her complaints after it found nothing more could have been done to support her. She resigned on 28 September 2017. 

The ET ordered Haxby Group Practice pay Proctor £12,421 for compensation for unfair dismissal and £14,385 loss of earnings arising out of unlawful discrimination. Proctor was also granted £15,000 for injury to feelings arising out of unlawful discrimination, in particular the failure to make reasonable adjustments. With the addition of interest, Proctor received a total award of £44,673.75.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said making reasonable adjustments was a legal duty when an employee had a disability and employers needed to take ownership of implementing the necessary adjustment.

“Those who leave the employee to their own devices to research new software that will alleviate some of the problems caused by the disability will not be acting reasonably. Any delay caused by the failure of the employer to take control of the purchasing process can, as shown in this case, render their behaviour a breach of the requirement to make reasonable adjustments,” he said.

A spokesperson for Haxby Group Practice said: "We are committed to supporting all our staff here at Haxby Group, across our nine surgery sites. We are satisfied that this case has now been settled and wish Mrs Proctor well.”

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