Disabled woman secures compensation from employer after holiday accident

A Northern Irish woman who was left permanently disabled after a serious accident has been awarded almost £19,000 in compensation after her employers refused to allow her to return to work.

Alison Austin aged 47, from Whitehead, County Antrim, sustained serious injuries to her neck and spine after a fall whilst holidaying in France in 2005. She has since had to use a wheelchair.

Ms Austin was employed by the Social Security Agency in Belfast at the time and was told in January 2007, after 18 months of rehabilitation, that she was being forced to retire on medical grounds. She was subsequently told that the Social Security Agency would only consider the issue of making reasonable adjustments to allow her to return to work if she was successful in appealing against the decision.

Ms Austin was supported in her case by the Equality Commission. The Social Security Agency admitted liability and settled out-of-court with Ms Austin. They awarded her £18,940 and agreed to allow her to return to work. They also agreed to make physical adjustments to its premises at Royal Avenue in Belfast, and have fully restored her pay, annual leave, and pension arrangements.

In admitting liability the agency expressed its regret for the distress, upset and injury to Ms Austin’s feelings. It also affirmed its commitment to the principle of equality of opportunity in employment and has agreed to liaise with the Equality Commission to review its practices and procedures.

Ms Austin said after the settlement: “I really appreciate the great support I have had from my immediate colleagues and the assistance I received from the Equality Commission. It has been a difficult and stressful time but I am really happy to be back at work. I am particularly pleased that this case has highlighted, and hopefully will improve the proper steps to be taken towards accommodating disabled people in the workplace.”

Legal Casework Director of the Equality Commission, Anne McKernan, said: “In this case the decision to medically retire Alison Austin was made on the basis that she could not do her job exactly as she did it before her accident. The outcome underlines the importance for employers considering reasonable adjustments, including physical adjustments, before deciding to dismiss or retire a disabled employee. It also stresses the importance of consulting with the employee to find out their requirements, rather than just making assumptions about someone’s willingness or ability to work.”

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