We have done a lot of posts on beauty bias, or “lookism” – workplace bias based upon appearance.  See our posts on lookism, appearance or beauty bias, and weight and height discrimination: October 16, 2013; July 9, 2012; February 11, 2011).  Some call this “aesthetic labor” – or “looking good.”

In fact we did a post as recently as March 2nd.

Aesthetic Labor – “Sounding Right

There is another type of hiring bias based upon “aesthetic labor” – or  in this case “sounding right.”   The issue revolves around “stammering” — “a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds.”

A new study by Dr. Clare Butler of Newcastle University Business School in the UK was published by the British Sociological Association and SAGE:  “The article highlights the difficulties for anti-discrimination policy to offset the entrenched, socio-cultural nature of what constitutes employability.”

Dr. Butler discusses “aesthetic labour … ‘looking good.’”  She states that aesthetic labor “also includes ‘sounding right,’ where ‘excellent communication skills’ is an almost mandatory component of job advertisements. Much success in the labour market is therefore predicated on employees possessing the right verbal characteristics.”

16629067_sShe studied men who stammer aged 21 to 65, and found “routine discrimination – by employers and the men themselves … Their sometime inability to sound right saw the men seek to enhance their knowledge or emphasize other communication attributes, such as listening.”

All of the men studied “had been rejected by potential employers, sometimes in the very first interview.”  She said that “Many participants were told not only of their mismatch for the specifics of the job or the likelihood of a detrimental impact on customers, but also of the possible negative impact on team dynamics if they were appointed.”

Is Stammering A “Disability?”

There are support groups for those who stammer, and treatments offered by therapists of all stripes.   But is stammering a “disability” covered under the various relevant statutes?

A interesting legal discussion was authored in 2011 by William D. Parry, Esq., former chair of the National Stuttering Association Advocacy Committee.   He argued that “Stuttering clearly fulfills the definition of a “physiological disorder” or “condition” that affects the “speech organs” and that limits an individual’s ability to participate in the “major life activity” of “speaking” and, in some cases, “working.”  In addition, even in those cases where a person’s stuttering might not in itself “substantially limit” a major life activity under 42 U.S.C. sec. 12102(2)(A) of the ADA, that person might still have a “disability” under sec. 12102(2)(C) because he is “regarded as having such an impairment.”

Apropos Dr. Butler’s new study, he says that “Furthermore, stuttering is a perfect example of a condition that is stigmatized by negative stereotypes. Research has confirmed that persons who stutter are subject to negative stereotypes, which have significantly harmed their employment and promotion opportunities. These stereotypes include the widely accepted impression that stutterers are nervous, shy, quiet, self-conscious, withdrawn, tense, anxious, fearful, reticent, and guarded.”

There is a also a good article on the issue under the UK’s Equality Act 2010.

We have not conducted independent legal research to see if any court has held that stammering is a disability (if someone has caselaw, please send us a comment), but we surmise that it is only a matter of (a short) time until this is the case — especially under an anti-discrimination law as broad as New York City’s.