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November 27, 2004

Deaf class assistant wins landmark case

From: The Scotsman - Edinburgh,Scotland,UK - Nov 27, 2004

Worker accused council of discrimination after feeling 'isolated'


A DEAF classroom assistant has won a landmark legal ruling after accusing a Lothian council of discrimination.

Elizabeth Simpson, who worked at Longridge Prim- ary School near Whitburn, took West Lothian Council to an employment tribunal because she felt "isolated and excluded" at work.

Ms Simpson, 56, said that other staff members did not alter the way they worked after she lost her hearing following a viral infection.

She had an extended period of leave and unsuccessfully applied for other vacant positions, before eventually resigning from the school in August 2001.

Backed by public sector union Unison, she argued that the council should have retrained other staff members at the school to deal with a deaf colleague.

The Edinburgh tribunal has now ruled such training was a "reasonable adjustment" and should have been organised by the employer.

Ms Simpson said today: "It was not the shock of being deaf that made me ill. I managed to continue working for four years before succumbing to anxiety and depression.

"It was the council's inability to retain me in the normal operation of school life, or some other job, that made my position impossible.

"All I needed was colleagues who knew how to avoid excluding me. The training isn't rocket science but awareness doesn't come naturally to hearing people. They tend to assume that everyone hears them when they speak."

Ms Simpson, who was born in Edinburgh but now lives in Forth, South Lanarkshire, said she was referred to occupational health with a view to dismissal on grounds of capability, but her employer was told to make reasonable adjustments to support her at work.

Deaf awareness training was identified as an option, but Ms Simpson, who now works at Donaldson's School for the Deaf, described the initial session as a "disaster" as her colleagues took offence at the suggestion they lacked awareness.

Peter Hunter, Scottish legal officer for Unison, said: "One morning she turned up for work to find everyone on a double-decker bus.

"They had arranged a trip to the seaside but because it was organised by word-of-mouth and nothing was written down, Elizabeth didn't know about it.

"Simple things like writing things down and not talking to a deaf employee with your back turned can really make a difference."

The union said the employment tribunal's decision would ensure other employers carry out deaf awareness training for employees.

General secretary Dave Prentis said: "The expansion and improvement of the [Disability Discrimination Act] in October is welcome, but this case shows how Unison and other unions must continue to press for improved protection for all disabled people.

"This council has lost the skill and experience of someone who would have offered important support to deaf children and other pupils in Longridge Primary School."

The employment tribunal's decision was made earlier this month.

The chairman found that "the provision of deaf awareness training does not fall within the scope of the [Disability Discrimination Act]," but he agreed that it was a "reasonable adjustment" to make.

A new tribunal will now decide whether it was the absence of deaf awareness training that forced Ms Simpson to resign from her job.

A council spokeswoman said: "As this case is still being considered it would not be appropriate for us to comment.

"However, West Lothian Council is an equal opportunities employer and takes disability issues very seriously."