Thursday, June 25, 2009

British woman sues Abercrombie & Fitch store for disability discrimination

From The Guardian in the UK:

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has been accused of "hiding" a sales assistant in a stockroom at a London outlet because her prosthetic arm didn't fit with its "look policy", a tribunal has heard.

Riam Dean (pictured), a 22-year-old law student from Greenford, west London, claims she was removed from the shop floor at the company's Savile Row branch when management became aware of her disability.

Dean, who was born without her left forearm and has worn a prosthetic limb since she was three months old, is suing for disability discrimination after she was left "personally diminished [and] humiliated" when she refused to remove her cardigan at work last summer.

"I had been bullied out of my job," she said. "It was the lowest point I had ever been in my life."

It is believed Dean is seeking around £25,000 in compensation for her experiences under what she described as A&F's "oppressive regime". Her legal team would not comment on the sum.

Dean claims that when she told A&F about her disability after getting the job, the firm agreed she could wear a white cardigan to cover the link between her prosthesis and her upper arm. But shortly afterwards, she was told she could not work on the shop floor unless she took off the cardigan as she was breaking the firm's "look policy". She told the tribunal that someone in the A&F head office suggested she stay in the stockroom "until the winter uniform arrives".

The "look policy" stipulates that all employees "represent Abercrombie & Fitch with natural, classic American style consistent with the company's brand" and "look great while exhibiting individuality". Workers must wear a "clean, natural, classic hairstyle" and have nails which extend "no more than a quarter inch beyond the tip of the finger".

Dean said today in her evidence: "A female A&F manager used the 'look policy' and the wearing of the cardigan as an excuse to hide me away in the stockroom.

"I knew then that I was being treated different and unfairly because of my disability. Her words pierced right through the armour of 20 years of building up personal confidence about me as a person, and that I am much more than a girl with only one arm … "

Dean said the "look policy" was inconsistent: "Having visible tattoos breaks the 'look policy' and yet I've seen a worker with a tribal arm tattoo which is very noticeable and yet Abercrombie allowed him to work on the shop floor. Clearly their reasoning goes far deeper and I'm sure it's not the cardigan which breaks the look policy, it's the disabled label which does," she said.

She added: "I am born with a character trait I am unable to change, thus to be singled out for a minor aesthetic 'flaw' made me question my worth as a human being.

"Abercrombie taught me that beauty lies in perfection, but I would tell them that beauty lies in diversity, for I would rather live with my imperfection than to exude such ugliness in their blatant display of eugenics in policies and practices."

Her friend Genevieve Reed told the tribunal that Dean had changed since working at A&F, and had "started to question whether this was just the first of a series of obstacles she would come up against in her life due to her disability".

Medical evidence presented to the tribunal revealed Dean had undergone a psychiatric assessment to support an application for disability support funding several months before starting work at A&F last May. The psychiatrist described her as "socially isolated", with an anxiety disorder that reached "phobic levels" relating to a fear of travelling on public transport.

A&F's barrister, Akash Nawbatt, suggested that someone with such a phobia would not be able to work in a noisy shop, and suggested that she may have exaggerated her medical problems.

He also repeatedly accused Dean of exaggerating the effect her time at A&F had had on her, and suggested she had lied on the claim form she submitted to the tribunal.

Under questioning from the three tribunal judges, Dean admitted that an element of the original claim form was false. This stated that she had been repeatedly asked by A&F management to remove her prosthetic arm, but Dean said that this had not been the case, and implied it was a mistake.

The tribunal continues.