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College discriminated against blind employee, tribunal rules

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A London college put a blind employee at “substantial disadvantage” to his colleagues by failing to make reasonable adjustments for him, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The tribunal concluded that Lewisham and Southwark College failed to take “obvious steps” to address its disability officer Michael Lambert’s needs.

It had failed to give him access to key computer software, despite him making repeated requests over a number of years. 

The tribunal concluded that the college had discriminated against him because of his disability. 

Mr Lambert (pictured), who was left totally blind after an accident at the age of 16, today told TES he felt “frustrated and undermined.” “It damaged my career,” he added.

The tribunal heard Mr Lambert, who started at Southwark College in 1983, was unable to access college computer databases essential to his role because they were incompatible with his screen-reading software. 

Mr Lambert made repeated requests for the software to be integrated from January 2011, but the college said giving him access would be too expensive. He was still unable to access the databases at the time of tribunal hearing in December 2014.

In his ruling, Judge Lamb said that the college had failed to respond to Mr Lambert’s requests in a “coherent, logical and urgent manner”, and that the claim of disability discrimination was “well founded”. 

Mr Lambert told TES: “I asked whether they had considered the accessibility of their database but no attention was given to that whatsoever.

“Their response was, ‘We will look into it.’ They said there wasn’t the money or I didn’t need the software, which wasn’t true; it was very important to my job and other colleagues working at a similar level were using it.

“I couldn’t even get student’s phone numbers to make contact with them. It put me in an impossible situation compared to my colleagues. Simple tasks were much more time-consuming, and I was constantly apologising to people.”

“They wasted far more time messing about with not solving the issues than if they had dealt with it properly to start with.”

The tribunal also concluded Mr Lambert had been unfairly disadvantaged during a college restructure process because he was not given sufficient notice of a written test and was unable to properly assess what reasonable adjustments were required.

The University and College Union (UCU), which supported Mr Lambert throughout the tribunal, said the college’s failures were unacceptable.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "It’s absolutely unacceptable that the college failed on so many occasions to address Mr. Lambert’s needs, and that his personal wellbeing and professional development suffered as a result. The ruling reinforces the need for colleges to swiftly act upon requests from disabled staff for reasonable adjustments."

Mr Lambert’s barrister Adam Wagner said the case "provides useful guidance for employers when they are considering introducing new technology for employees at work". "It is imperative that the needs of disabled employees are considered at an early stage," he added.

Mr Lambert, who still works at the college, told TES the judgment should send a “clear message” to employers that they must take requests for reasonable adjustments seriously.

But he also warned that increasing financial pressures on the FE sector could cause more problems for disabled employees in future.

“I think disabled people and others with protected characteristics are being squashed by the pressures in the system,” he said. “It trickles down from the top. The more they try to cut in the name of efficiency the more wasteful and inefficient things will become.”

Mr Lambert said he would encourage other people with disabilities in FE colleges who feel they are being discriminated against to speak out.

A college spokesperson said: "As far as the college is concerned, the case is still ongoing and therefore we’re not able to discuss the detail at this stage. Out of multiple main points raised as grievances, Judge Lamb ruled in the college’s favour on the majority. Whilst any such case is regrettable, Mr Lambert remains in our employment."



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