Assistance / emotional support animals – the cat’s whiskers?
A claim for discrimination has been brought against Sainsbury’s after they refused to allow an ‘assistance cat’ into one of their shops in London. After suffering from episodes of sensory overload triggered by busy environments, the individual pursuing the legal action had recently been diagnosed with autism and relied on his trained cat, Chloe, for support and assistance with managing daily life.
Whilst this case relates to service providers, the same principles apply in an employment context, putting a duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any substantial disadvantage due to a disability.
What are reasonable adjustments and why are they important?
The Equality Act 2010 provides protection to individuals with disabilities by placing a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that employees (present and former) and job applicants are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.
Under the 2010 Act, a disability is defined as a ‘physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities’.
There are a wide range of reasonable adjustments an employer can make; what is reasonable (and so required by law) will depend on the circumstances of each case.
So how does this apply to cats?
Individuals with disabilities or other impairments may want to be accompanied to work by an animal. An obvious and uncontroversial example is guide dogs. There has been a recent increase in requests for ‘emotional support’ animals to be allowed, and it can be tricky to know whether an employee really needs assistance, or simply wants to bring a companion animal to work. A guide dog addresses (in most cases) a clear physical need; however mental health conditions can often be overlooked or downplayed
Although it is rare for a cat like Chloe to be classed as an assistance animal, the principle of making reasonable adjustments would still apply; such a request cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.
So what should an employer do?
Assuming you are satisfied your employee is disabled (and a medical referral may be appropriate if you are not), the question is whether allowing an assistance animal would alleviate a substantial disadvantage of that disability. Medical advice may be necessary to establish this if you are unpersuaded.
Even if this is the case, the employer’s obligations are limited to what is reasonable. There may be situations where such a request is not (e.g. a request to allow a cat in a commercial kitchen is unlikely to be reasonable). Employers should also consider what, if any, impact the adjustment would have on others; e.g. is anyone allergic to cats or would there be health and safety implications?
Whilst (sadly) we don’t think cats at work are likely to be particularly common any time soon, the case of Chloe and her owner does highlight how tricky it can be to make reasonable adjustments.
How can we help?
The duty to make reasonable adjustments is a complex area of law which can prove expensive if you get it wrong. If you would like more advice about reasonable adjustments, implementing changes or reviewing your internal policies or procedures, please get in touch with our employment team.