Ms Coffey, the Claimant, was a police officer for the Wiltshire Constabulary. During a medical, she was found to have suffered hearing loss and tinnitus but was allowed to remain employed after passing a functionality test. She was not considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act.
The Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey
The Claimant then applied for a position at the Norfolk Constabulary, the Respondent. She disclosed her hearing problems and was found to have hearing levels below the recruitment standard. The Respondent’s medical advisors believed that despite being below the normal hearing level for recruitment, the Claimant was still capable of passing the practical test and performing the role.
The medical team also noted that the Claimant’s hearing had not deteriorated in the two years between being diagnosed with hearing loss and applying at the Respondent. Despite this, the Respondent rejected her application supposedly because the Claimant’s hearing was below the recruitment standard level.
The Claimant believed this was because the Respondent perceived her to be disabled and this might cause strain on the Respondent’s resources, she initiated ET proceedings for direct discrimination. The ET held that the Respondent had rejected the Claimant’s application because they perceived her hearing loss to be a disability that could not be improved by reasonable adjustments, or, they feared she would become disabled (deaf) during the course of employment. This amounted to direct discrimination.
The Respondent appealed. The EAT rejected the appeal. It held that perceiving someone to be, or potentially becoming, disabled and not offering them a job because of that perception is discriminatory behaviour.
The takeaway point:
Yes, this is clearly discriminatory. Employers need to be careful that an applicant who suffers from a medical condition that is not a disability isn’t rejected for employment because the employer perceives it is or disability, or, might become one in the future. Further medical reports usually address any concerns employers may have about progressive conditions.