EQUAL STATUS ACTS 2000-2004
DECISION NO. DEC-S2016-080
Bord Gais Energy
Represented by Una Cassidy B.L
File reference: ES/2014/0169
Date of issue: 21 December 2016
HEADNOTES: Equal Status Act – Discrimination in provision of services- Disability
1.1 This dispute concerns a claim by Robert Sinnott that he was discriminated against by the respondent on the grounds of his disability contrary to section 3 of the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004 in relation to the provision of services in terms of section 5 of the Act.
1.2 The complainant referred a claim to the Director of the Equality Tribunal on July 28th 2014 under the Equal Status Act. On November 10th, 2016, in accordance with his powers under section 75 of the Employment Equality Acts, the Director General of the Workplace Relations Commission delegated the case to me, Pat Brady, an Adjudication Officer/Equality Officer, for investigation, hearing and decision and for the exercise of other relevant functions of the Director General under Part VII of the Acts, on which date my investigation commenced.
1.3 Submissions were received from both sides. In accordance with Section 25 (4) of the Equal Status Acts and as part of my investigation I proceeded to a hearing on November 15th, 2016.
1.4 This decision is issued by me following the establishment of the Workplace Relations Commission on 1 October 2015, as an Adjudication Officer who was an Equality Officer prior to 1 October 2015, in accordance with section 83 (3) of the Workplace Relations Act 2015.
2.1 The complainant is visually impaired and sought to have bills provided to him by the respondent in a way that was accessible to him. In fact the matter was resolved to his satisfaction in December 2014 and bills have been issued to him in an acceptable format since January 2015. His complaint relates to the length of time it took to get to this stage since he first raised the matter in 2009.
2.2 In 2009 his attention was drawn by a visitor to his home to the fact that BGE was seeking his bank details. He telephoned the respondent and asked that future bills sent to him should be in an accessible format so that he could monitor and keep track of both usage and his costs.
2.3 The most effective way of doing so was to re-format the billing information into the body of an email which could be rendered into speech by voice recognition software.
2.4 The respondent offers a number of services for customers with similar visual impairments such as a spoken bill service (by a customer service agent), a Bill in braille, or dispatch of the bill to a carer or other nominated person. This requires a written application to be placed on the respondent Special Services Register
2.5 None of these options suited the complainant. He did not fill out the application to be put on the register for the alternative billing but he was placed on it for general purposes. He got one phoned billing call in January 2010 but this service was not of interest as the call could happen when it was inconvenient for the complainant.
2.6 Nothing further happened until March or April of 2011 when he got an iPhone and acquired a BGE ‘app’ which was of assistance with the bills. Unfortunately, this only lasted until January or February the following year when he lost his password to the system and was not able to replace it.
2.7 The next development was in November 2013 when he became aware of paper bills coming to his home and he asked BGE again for email bills. He made a formal complaint on this occasion which eventually resulted again in an offer of braille or bills being read to him on the telephone.
2.8 The complainant made a complaint to the Equality Authority in January 2014 and, as noted above, agreement was reached between the parties between November and December 2014 with the first bill in a format acceptable to the complainant being issued in January 2015.
3.1 The respondent notes that the account was set up in 2009 by email and no reference was made to the complainant’s disability.
3.2 The respondent says that its position regarding the requirement to have a written application to be placed on the Special Services Register is not of its making but is a requirement of its regulator. It says it was not in a position to respond to the complainant request when it was first made although it has done so now. (Evidence was given at the hearing of some relaxation in the position, although Data Protection concerns remain.)
3.3 When the respondent did receive the form from the complainant in February 2010 the complainant had not selected which of the billing methods he wished to opt for. In the absence of this, and given the external constraints on doing as the complainant wished it had to leave the matter there. The respondent assumed the complainant had opted for another solution.
3.4 There was nothing then until March/April 2011 when the complainant contacted the respondent in relation to its on-line platform. He requested bills by emails at that stage again but the respondent was not still in a position to do so.
3.5 In May 2012 the respondent was in touch with the complainant to see if he wished ‘average billing’ to spread his bill payment evenly through the year. He declined this but did not use the opportunity to raise the previous issue he had with the format of his billing.
3.6 The respondent heard nothing further then until November 28th 2013. This meant that between the initial contacts at the end of 2009 and up to February 2010 they had no contact from the complainant until March 2011. Following this nothing was heard until November 2013.
3.7 The respondent says it can only be responsible for a matter of which it is aware. It did not know, for example that the ‘talking bill’ was unacceptable to the complainant until it received the ES 1 form in connection with the current complaint.
3.8 As noted earlier it is bound by strict requirements in relation to the Special Services Account but did send the complainant the application instructions on CD.
CONCLUSIONS AND FINDINGS
4.1 It is easy to appreciate and have empathy with the frustrations of the complainant in this case. He demonstrated considerable initiative, flexibility and technical knowledge and expertise in the course of the hearing and he cannot be faulted for a lack of effort in finding ways to adapt the world to his needs.
4.2 It is not always possible to do so, fully, however. The respondent has six thousand customers on its Special Service Register and does offer three options to visually impaired users. Its unwillingness to do so in the case of the complainant’s specific request was clearly a result of matters outside its immediate control.
4.3 I am being invited by the complainant to find that the respondent was in breach of the Act by its failure to provide him with the specific service he requested.
4.4 In assessing that it is necessary to look at its actions in the various episodes of the narrative. I am satisfied that they are as set out in the respondent’s submissions above. While it is true that significant time passed between the original raising of the matter by the complainant and the eventual resolution of it responsibility for the intervening delay lay as much, if not more with the complainant than the respondent.
4.5 In February 2010 the complainant failed, or declined to fill in the form which the company required (or more accurately was required by the regulator to have completed). It heard nothing further from the complainant until March or April the following year, 2011. While he did renew his request at that stage the respondent was still constrained from meeting his request by the requirements of the regulator.
4.6 Then there was the unrelated contact in 2012 about the option of ‘average billing’ but in the course of which there was no reference to the billing issue by the complainant.
4.7 The company heard nothing further until November 2013 when the process began which eventually resolved the issue, following the referral to the Equality Authority.
4.8 There is nothing here to suggest that the respondent was ‘dragging its heels’ unduly and therefore acting unreasonably to the point where it was in breach of the Equal Status Acts. It is not possible to discern an act of discrimination as envisaged by Section 5 (1) of the Acts in the narrative as outlined above, up to the point where the matter was resolved, to the satisfaction of both sides.
5.1 In accordance with Section 25 (4) of the Equal Status Acts I conclude this investigation and issue the following decision.
That the complainant has failed to establish his case and his complaint fails.
5.2 Accordingly I dismiss the complaint.
21 December 2016