Blind baker wins discrimination tribunal

Managers told the tribunal that Stanley's visual impairment caused him to make mistakes from the start of his employment

Bosses at a bakery in Wrexham did not do enough to make reasonable adjustments for a man registered as blind before dismissing him during his probation period, a tribunal ruled.

Ian Stanley was dismissed from The Village Bakery on 30 August 2023, six weeks into his three-month probation period. 

The tribunal found that he had been subject to unfavourable treatment as the result of his disability by two managers who had failed to make reasonable adjustments to allow him to settle into his role. 

Kash Dosanjh, associate at law firm Wright Hassall, told HR magazine that this case highlighted employers' legal obligations with regards to employees with disabilities.

He said: “Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for an employee who is disabled, or if they could reasonably be expected to know someone is disabled. This requirement does not only extend to employees, it also extends to applicants who have applied for a role at the employer.

“This highlights the importance for employers to make reasonable adjustments, regardless of length of service. A failure to do so will certainly place the employer at risk of such a claim.” 

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In July 2023, Stanley was employed as a night-shift operator at the Village Bakery. He was required to complete an assessment that checked his eligibility, which he passed.

On the first day of his employment, Stanley completed forms that disclosed he had a visual impairment. Stanley is registered as legally blind, and was diagnosed with Bardet Biedl syndrome in 2010, which means he can see at six metres what someone with standard vision could see from 60 metres away.

The tribunal heard from Kevin Jones, Stanley’s shift manager, that it was "patently obvious" to Stanley’s colleagues that his visual impairment caused him to make mistakes "almost immediately" from the start of his employment.

Stanley’s role at the bakery included moving bread from the oven area to cool, splitting bread to assist with cooling, recording the temperature of the bread, and moving bread racks around the factory.

Jones told the tribunal the night-shift supervisor had seen Stanley crash racks of bread into machinery, and a series of "near misses" in which Stanley had been close to hitting staff with racks or trolleys. 

However, Stanley told the tribunal he thought he had been doing a good job. Nobody raised concerns with him about the quality or speed of his work – though a manager informed him that bread had fallen off the end of his trolley – and nobody raised the subject of how his disability could have impacted his work.

During his employment Stanley worked alongside a ‘buddy’, but the tribunal noted that they did not correct his performance. 

Stanley was subsequently moved between roles, which the tribunal ruled would have slowed down his ability to adjust to the role and learn the layout of the factory. 

On 21 August, Stanley was told that he would have a probationary review at the start of his shift the following day. He was told in the meeting that he had been trialled in different areas of the factory and had not reached the required standard.

Stanley was told to collect his belongings and informed that his employment would end a week later, on 30 August. 

The tribunal ruled that the respondents knew, or ought to have known, that it would take the claimant longer to achieve their standards within the allotted probationary timeframe. 

Stanley was informed that it wasn’t safe for him to work in the environment of the bakery, despite the fact, as he told the tribunal, he had previously worked in a factory environment for 18 years with few adjustments. 

Jones relied on the fact that it was a safety risk for Stanley to continue working at the bakery, but the tribunal did not accept this as he had allowed Stanley to work there for six weeks without completing a health and safety risk assessment. 

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The tribunal ruled that Stanley had been subjected to unfavourable treatment as a result of his disability, as the respondents ought to have known his disability would make him liable to disadvantage and had not made reasonable adjustments. It noted that, while Stanley had not informed his employers of the need for adjustments, the onus of responsibility did not fall on him.

The tribunal team suggested that reasonable adjustments would have been to give Stanley more time to familiarise himself with the processes, people and factory environment. They also advised that he could have been designated a support worker who he could have learned from, as well as given a high visibility vest to alert his colleagues of his proximity.

It also said that the employer could have consulted the Royal National Institute for Blind People or Access to Work for funding if it was concerned about the cost of adjustments.

The tribunal found Stanley’s dismissal was not proportionate to the respondents’ concerns for health and safety or loss of earnings due to his low performance, and ruled that the dismissal was discrimination on the grounds of his disability.

Remedies will be decided at a future hearing.

Joanna Hurry, disability and employment consultant, told HR magazine: "Employers are legally responsible for making reasonable adjustments for disabled staff at every stage of their career, including probation. It is always in the employer's best interests to openly discuss with a new employee what reasonable adjustments and support they need."

She suggested adjustments such as screen readers and a dedicated mentor.

Hurry continued: "All reasonable adjustments need to be considered individually and tailored to the specific situation. Reasonable adjustments for visual impairment that might be helpful include the provision of assistive technology like voice recognition systems, screen readers, magnifiers or large-print documents.

"Considering the physical work environment, such as adjusting lighting and reducing glare, can also be effective. Flexible work may be appropriate. Specialised training, a dedicated mentor or a support worker can help visually impaired employees understand their roles and responsibilities."