Police officer with voice condition 'bullied out by witch hunt'

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A former police officer told an employment tribunal today she had been the victim of a "witch hunt" to dismiss her from her force after she was diagnosed with an incurable voice condition.

Catherine Gilbert is suing Kent Police under the Disability Discrimination Act as she claims her bosses failed to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate her spasmodic dysphonia, a condition which makes it difficult for the sufferer to speak due to sudden involuntary muscle movements or spasms causing the vocal cords to slam together.

The 36-year-old, from Sittingbourne, was diagnosed with the disorder in April 2005 and signed off work by her GP the following November after she also started suffering from anxiety and depression brought on, she claims, by her treatment by Kent Police.

Giving evidence at Ashford Employment Tribunal Centre, she criticised the force for the lack of support it gave her and general poor management, describing one department she worked in as a "shambles".

She told the tribunal she attributes her condition to the pressure the force put her under as stress can be a cause of the disorder.

Ms Gilbert, who originally joined Kent Police in 1993, then worked for the Derbyshire force for two years before going back to Kent in 1997, said she began having problems with the way she was treated in April 2008 when she was working for the Medway division, one of the busiest in the county.

She told the tribunal how she felt "resented" by her colleagues as she was the only woman in the tactical team she was assigned to and had no training in the role despite being inexperienced.

Ms Gilbert, whose condition makes her voice shake and sometimes stutter over her words, said she applied to train to become a dog handler as this was a policing area she had always wanted to become involved in, but she was "bullied out".

She said she received little proper training as her instructor had no interest as he was due to retire, and she also felt she did not have a fair chance as neither of the two dogs she was assigned to train were suitable.

After spending some time working on a case investigation team, Ms Gilbert said she tried to remain positive as she passed the final part of her sergeant's exam and became a custody sergeant.

She told the hearing that it was around this time that she started experiencing problems with her voice and took some time off sick. "Some days I could hardly speak at all," she said.

She learnt to manage the condition by speaking in short sentences and using words that did not make her stutter, however she felt her colleagues showed a "lack of support" and was often humiliated by detainees because of the way that she talked.

Ms Gilbert, who was also carrying out a policing degree and studying to become an inspector, said her GP referred her to a speech therapist but this did not help, and so she went to the police welfare department, which offered her several sessions with a counsellor which also proved unsuccessful.

It was in her next role as a detective sergeant back with the case investigation team that she said she found it "very demanding and disorganised".

"In a nutshell that department was a shambles," she said. "But no one would admit there was a problem."

When she was then finally diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, she "finally snapped and went off sick".

Ms Gilbert complained she was bullied to return to work, accused by her bosses of being stubborn and even of manipulating her GP to say she was ill.

"They said it was my view of Kent Police that was preventing me from coming back," she said.

In May 2006 she found she had been reduced to half pay and she could not afford to have the counselling sessions she had been continuing to receive.

Ms Gilbert claims Kent Police did not seek any professional advice about her condition and failed to offer her a position that accommodated her disability.

In July the following year, when she was still not fit to return to work, her salary was cut altogether, which she felt was a "witch hunt to dismiss me from the force".

The tribunal heard Ms Gilbert went back to work in May 2008, but was then told she was required to resign the next day. She lodged an appeal but this was unsuccessful.