Diplomat loses legal fight over reasonable adjustments


A high-flying diplomat’s career is “in limbo” after she lost a disability discrimination case against the Foreign Office over the support she needed to do her job in a new posting.

Jane Cordell, who is profoundly Deaf, had been offered the job of deputy ambassador to Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, but the offer was withdrawn because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said the cost of providing lip-speakers to support her would be too high.

Cordell, who now has a London desk job, had been praised by the FCO for her performance in her previous posting in Poland – and received awards from the Polish authorities for her disability rights work – for which the government provided lip-speakers at an annual cost of about £146,000.

But the employment tribunal heard that a new FCO reasonable adjustments policy had been introduced after Cordell started working in Poland.

She argued that funding lip-speakers for the Kazakhstan posting was a “reasonable adjustment” under the Disability Discrimination Act, and estimated the cost to be about £200,000 a year, while the FCO’s estimate was nearly £300,000.

But the tribunal found that the FCO did not discriminate against her by refusing to fund the lip-speakers, and dismissed her claims for direct disability discrimination, disability-related discrimination and a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

In its judgment, the tribunal said the likely annual cost of the adjustments was more than five times Cordell’s salary, which would not be “reasonable”.

Cordell said she was proud of her work with the FCO, but added: “I am also proud to have brought my case to tribunal. People with disabilities and long-term illnesses who want to be economically active and independent need answers to the questions the case poses.”

RADAR said it was “shocked” by the FCO’s failure to fund the adjustments Cordell needed, which is said was a “real setback” to equality in the workplace.

Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, said the decision “puts a cap on ambition” and sends the message to disabled people that “the highest level jobs will be debarred” and that some of them “are just too expensive to employ and will never achieve equality”.

She said that Cordell “could have been an incredible international role model and ambassador for Britain”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which helped fund Cordell’s case, said her career was now “in limbo” because the FCO had failed to clarify how much support she was entitled to, a decision which “directly influences whether she can be posted abroad in the future”.

An EHRC spokeswoman said: “We thought it was an interesting test case because she is such a high-flyer, a senior woman. We thought we might get some clarity around what tribunals thought was reasonable.”

She added: “It is important that reasonable adjustments are provided to allow disabled people to participate fully in the workforce and allow talented people like Jane to realise their full potential.”

3 November 2010


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