THE HIGH COURT
Employment Equality Acts – Disability – Reasonable accommodation – Appropriate measures – Adequate consideration
The appellant, a special needs school, brought a point of law appeal from the Labour Court seeking to overturn the decision of that court to award the respondent the sum of €40,000 in compensation for having suffered discrimination on the grounds of disability.
The respondent had been employed by the appellant as a special needs assistant. She was tragically injured in an accident which left her paralysed from the waist down and wheelchair bound. She sought to return to work following her partial recovery and was referred to an occupational health physician by the appellant. The doctor noted that she could not perform some of the tasks of an SNA but could carry out many others. He supported her return to work after a risk assessment was carried out.
An occupational health therapist then assessed how the school could facilitate the respondent’s return to work. She found that the respondent could perform the majority of tasks assigned to SNAs and that she could be accommodated as a ‘floating’ SNA dedicated to children who require verbal and physical prompts.
The principal of the school was reluctant to accommodate the respondent in this way and asked the doctor to reassess her fitness for work. The doctor reported back that, in light of the school’s difficulties with accommodation, he was certifying the respondent as unfit for the SNA position on the basis of her genuine and permanent medical condition. The appellant then dismissed the respondent from her post.
The Labour Court determined that the appellant had only assessed the reasonable accommodation that would be required to allow the respondent to return to full duties; the appellant had failed to adequately consider the possibility of the respondent being reasonably accommodated with a return to adjusted duties.
In the High Court, Noonan J. dismissed the appeal agreeing with the Labour Court that, had the school given full and adequate consideration to all possible options, it might have concluded that a return to work for the respondent was viable. The school had misinterpreted the requirements of the legislation in only considering whether reasonable accommodation of the respondent’s disability could lead to a return to the full duties of an SNA; the appellant was also obliged to consider whether a return to adjusted duties could be reasonable accommodated.