Disability Discrimination

A Starbucks employee has won a disability discrimination case, after problems arising from her dyslexia led her to make a number of errors in the workplace (Kumulchew v Starbucks).

Ms Kumulchew worked as a Shift Supervisor at Starbucks in Clapham.  As part of her role, she was required to record the temperatures of in-store fridges and water containers at specific times on a duty roster notebook.  She suffered from dyslexia (which Starbucks was aware of), which meant that she had difficulties with reading, writing, and telling the time.

Starbucks accused her of falsifying documents after mistakenly entering wrong information, essentially accusing her of fraud. Starbucks commenced disciplinary proceedings against Ms Kumulchew and gave her a written warning. The store also reduced her responsibilities and made her retrain, which, she claimed, left her feeling suicidal.

The tribunal was satisfied that her dyslexia constituted a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act.  They found that Starbucks had discriminated against her due to the effects of her disability and had failed to make reasonable adjustments as a result.  They also found that she had been victimised by Starbucks and that there was little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues.

Whilst this case does not set a legal precedent it should act as a warning for employers to tread carefully with employees suffering from dyslexia, particularly because the condition and its effects may not be immediately apparent.  

Starbucks acted on the basis that it thought their employee was deliberately falsifying documents, but instead she was making mistakes because of her medical condition.  Had Starbucks investigated the issue properly and taken into account her dyslexia, it is easy to see how they could have put in place reasonable adjustments to enable her to carry out her role; for example, by way of a double check on the information she was recording, or reallocating duties amongst staff to remove those duties where her condition would pose a problem. As such, this case emphasises how important it is for employers to understand their employees’ disabilities and to ensure they are making all reasonable adjustments in light of the same.

Dr Kate Saunders, chief executive of the British Dyslexia Association, said cases such as Ms Kumulchew’s should be a “wake-up call” for employers. The Association estimates that as many as one in 10 people have dyslexia, although many have not been formally diagnosed.

If you have any questions arising from this article or would like further information on Disability Discrimination, please get in touch with a member of our Employment team.