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Lewisham and Southwark College discriminated against blind disability officer, tribunal rules

2 June 2015

A south London college failed to make reasonable adjustments for a blind employee, putting him at a "substantial disadvantage" to his peers, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The decision, handed down on Thursday 21 May, judged that Lewisham and Southwark College failed to take "obvious steps" to address the college's disability officer Michael Lambert's needs. It had failed to give him access to key computer software despite his repeated requests over a number of years. The tribunal concluded that the college had discriminated against him because of his disability. 

Mr Lambert, who was involved in an accident aged 16 which left him totally blind, was unable to access college computer databases essential to his role because they were incompatible with his screen-reading software. 

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. 

From January 2011, he made repeated requests for the software to be integrated and adjustments to be made, but the college failed to prioritise Mr Lambert's needs, initially telling him that giving him access would be too expensive.

Despite then receiving reassurances from the college that the problems would be addressed in January 2013, Mr Lambert was still unable to access the databases in question at the time of the hearing in December 2014, almost two years later.

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

During the selection process he was asked to demonstrate knowledge of data management and record keeping, which were the very software systems from which he had been excluded. The tribunal said that as he "could not give an alternative answer", "there should have been an alternative question".

UCU, who supported Mr Lambert throughout the tribunal, said that the college's failures were unacceptable and that the ruling reinforced the need for colleges to make sure requests for reasonable adjustments are dealt with sensitively and appropriately, and are swiftly enacted.

Responding to the ruling, Mr Lambert said: 'I am delighted that the case has been upheld, and grateful for the support of UCU and my counsel. It's been a long struggle, but I hope that the result will galvanise disabled employees to challenge unequal access to facilities. This result should send a clear message to employers that they need to take requests for reasonable adjustments seriously.'

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: 'This 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.

'Just as importantly, if the issue is technological, then appropriate expertise should be sought to figure out how to make appropriate reasonable adjustments for disabled staff. If the employer fails to make adequate adjustments then that is unlawful discrimination.'

The college came under fierce criticism last year following news that it was scrapping a £300,000 rebrand to call itself LeSoCo. The college said it was ditching the new name and branding because it was "ambiguous and not recognisable as a college".

Last updated: 10 December 2015