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Discrimination: disability




The Equality Act 2010 ('the Act') protects people from discrimination on the basis of age, gender reassignment, sex, race, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and disability. These are called 'protected characteristics'. This guide covers disability and the Equality Act 2010 including who is covered, disclosing disability to your employer, types of discrimination and challenging discrimination.

The Equality Act 2010 applies in England, Scotland and Wales. The Act was not enacted in Northern Ireland, however, there are two laws which promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities by banning disability discrimination and which give enforceable legal rights to people with disabilities. They are the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Special Educational Needs and Disability (NI) Order 2005.

The Act states that a person has a disability if they have:

  • a physical or mental impairment, and
  • this has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Only a court or a tribunal can declare whether a person has a disability under the terms of the Act. Your employer may ask an occupational health service to say whether you are covered by the Act, but all they can do is give an opinion. You could also speak to the medical/ health care professionals involved in your care, to ask their advice on whether you have the protected characteristic of disability.  

Some progressive conditions (for example, cancer, HIV, lupus and MS) are automatically considered as disability, so if you have one of these conditions (irrespective of how minor your symptoms may be) you are covered by the Act immediately after diagnosis. People registered as blind (and some with other visual impairments) are also automatically covered.

Recurring or fluctuating conditions such as arthritis, epilepsy and certain mental health conditions may be covered even if the effects cease periodically due to a period of remission. However, the requirement for a 'long-term effect' (see below) is still necessary.

An assessment of disability is made as if the person were not taking any medication or receiving treatment to ease or improve their condition.

'Physical or mental impairment'  

If you have a diagnosis, it should be confirmed by written medical evidence from a medical expert. This should be a consultant-grade surgeon or physician, or suitable practitioner such as your GP, occupational health doctor or counsellor. In the absence of a formal diagnosis, you will need a full and accurate description of your condition(s) and symptoms confirmed by written medical evidence. 

'Substantial and long-term adverse effect'

You will need to be able to show the seriousness of your impairment and its effects. In particular: 

  • this must be more than a minor or trivial effect 
  • the assessment ignores any medical treatment you receive and looks at the effect of your condition without treatment
  • ‘long-term’ makes the distinction between an ordinary or short-term illness and a disability; long-term means that the impairment has:
    • lasted for at least 12 months, or 
    • is likely to last for at least 12 months, or 
    • is likely to recur or to last for the rest of a person’s life.

Even if you recover from your impairment, you may still bring a claim against your employer if you are treated less favourably for having had that impairment.  

'Normal day to day activities'

The Act looks at a person’s impairment and whether it substantially affects their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. These are considered to be things people do on a regular or daily basis, such as:   

  • shopping
  • reading and writing
  • having a conversation or using the telephone
  • watching television
  • getting washed and dressed
  • preparing and eating food
  • carrying out household tasks
  • walking and travelling by different modes of transport, and taking part in social activities
  • control of your bowels or bladder
  • understanding physical danger.

From 1 January 2024, the assessment of normal day to day activities, will include a person's ability to 'participate fully and effectively in working life on an equal basis with other workers'.

An impairment might not have a substantial adverse effect on a person’s ability to undertake a particular day-to-day activity in isolation, but its effects on more than one activity, taken together, could result in an overall substantial adverse effect.  

For information on long COVID please see our long COVID advice guide.

You can also access a range of resources and support relating to ill health and disability through our Peer Support Service.

The Act protects you from discrimination in all aspects of employment, including: 

  • when applying for a job
  • in the terms on which employment is offered
  • in opportunities for training, promotion or other benefits
  • in the way you are treated by your employer and colleagues
  • in being selected for redundancy or by being dismissed
  • in the way you are treated when you have left your job, but still have a relationship with your previous employer e.g. requiring a reference.

Further to this, the Act places a proactive duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to working arrangements or premises, in order to prevent disabled employees, job applicants or ex-employees from being disadvantaged. This includes making reasonable adjustments to the application and interview process, and careful consideration about providing references.

From 1 January 2024, employers must not make a discriminatory statement in connection to recruitment even if there is no recruitment process underway, as this may be direct discrimination. 

Please see our Health Ability Passport Guidance for more information.  

The Equality Act 2010 applies to all employees, and most types of workers, whatever the size of the employer and whether in the public or private sector. Agency workers are also protected by the Act.

The Act applies to trade organisations including trade unions, qualifying bodies (such as Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and examination boards), and trustees and managers of occupational pension schemes - as these are all considered areas of service provision. This guide does not cover these areas.

Direct discrimination

When someone is treated less favourably or disadvantaged because of their disability.

Indirect discrimination 

This is where an employer’s working practice or policy which applies to a group or to all employees but puts people with disabilities at a disadvantage. 

Discrimination arising from disability

If you are a disabled person, an employer must not treat you unfavourably because of something connected to your disability (for example, an absence from work if it is disability related). It does not apply if the employer did not know and, could not reasonably have been expected to have known about the disability.

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff members with a disability. You would need to inform your employer of your disability - see our section below on disclosing your disability and on reasonable adjustments. A failure to make a reasonable adjustment is likely to count as discrimination.


The Act protects someone from victimisation to ensure they are not deterred from bringing a complaint of disability discrimination. An employer cannot victimise someone because they have made a discrimination claim, have made an allegation of disability discrimination or are a witness in a case.




Harassment is unwanted conduct that is related to a relevant protected characteristic under the Act, in this case disability. The conduct has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile or degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 


You are not obliged to tell your employer that you are disabled or have described yourself as a disabled person. However, an employer may have a defence against a claim of discrimination if they were genuinely unaware of your disability. 

Pre-employment health checks

The Act places restrictions on the way in which prospective employers can use information about someone’s health or disability when considering them for a post. In general, prospective employers are not allowed to ask questions about someone’s health or disability prior to offering them a job. This includes questions about previous sickness absence. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has detailed guidance on this.

Prior to making a conditional offer of employment, an employer is not allowed to ask you about your health or disability except in the following circumstances:  

  • enquiring whether you would need a reasonable adjustment for any interviews or assessments they intend to run to assess suitability for the role
  • establishing whether or not applicants will be able to carry out tasks vital to the job
  • monitoring diversity
  • in order that they can take positive action, such as giving preferential treatment to disabled applicants or applicants with a particular disability.

The above questions on health should be gathered separately from the job application information. 

Questions about sickness absence can be asked after a candidate has been offered the job (either conditionally or unconditionally) or has been placed in a pool of successful candidates. Even then, the purpose of any questions should be to clarify that a person’s health or disability will not prevent them doing the job, and to enable the employer to consider whether there are any reasonable adjustments that can be made.

It is important that you do not assume your employer is aware of your disability because you have made occupational health aware of it. Your employer may know but for reasons of confidentiality it is unlikely that occupational health will have disclosed this, unless you have consented to them doing so.

More information on the role of occupational health can be found in our information on the health ability passport.

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities are not substantially disadvantaged.

When considering whether or not an adjustment is reasonable, employment law will look subjectively at the following:

  • how effective the adjustment would be in improving the situation
  • how practical it is to make the adjustment
  • how much it would cost to make the adjustment
  • how long it would take to make the adjustment
  • how much disruption making the adjustment would cause.

Support for reasonable adjustments

Employers are responsible for paying for any reasonable adjustments. The Government's Access to Work scheme also provides support to people with disabilities to remain in work, including grants. There are also Disability Employment Advisers (DEAs) who can be accessed through Job Centre Plus who can carry out workplace assessments and make recommendations to your employer about reasonable adjustments.

If an employer is reluctant or refuses to consider involving Access to Work or implement their recommendations, this could serve as evidence of failure to implement reasonable adjustments.

If you think you are being treated unfairly or are not being provided with appropriate reasonable adjustments, contact us for advice.

Please also see our Health Ability Passport Guidance for more information on reasonable adjustments and the role of occupational health.


An employer may be able to justify discrimination arising from disability but this is a complex area of law.

This would involve what is termed 'objective justification'; in other words, the action taken by the employer was a proportionate way to achieve a necessary aim.

For example, if someone had been off work for a long time due to their disability, the employer may be justified in dismissing the member of staff on grounds of capability due to ill health. One reason could be if there were resource issues for the employer and this may depend on the nature of the job or the size of the employer. The employer must still follow a fair process to ensure any dismissal would not be unfair. 

If you think you are being treated unfairly or may be at risk of losing your job, please contact us for advice. 

We also have guidance on sickness including long term absences.

If you are being discriminated against, you should refer to your employer’s equality and diversity policy. It is good practice to try and resolve any problems with your employer informally in the first instance. You could arrange a meeting with your employer, inform them of the problems that you are experiencing and ask them to take appropriate action to resolve these problems. This may involve making a reasonable adjustment as recommended by occupational health. You could also check your workplace policy regarding reasonable adjustments and bullying and harassment (if relevant).

It is often the case that an informal discussion is all that is needed to get matters resolved satisfactorily.

When to contact us

You can contact us at any time for advice. However, if you are not successful in getting the situation resolved on an informal basis, or if you are considering a formal process such as a grievance, please contact us before taking any formal action. Please also contact us if you are subject to any other types of discrimination listed above or if you have been harassed or victimised because of your disability. 

We have further advice guides on other types of discrimination and bullying and harassment to help you clarify what has happened and the best way forward.

If you are not able to resolve the issues with your employer, a disability claim can be brought at an employment tribunal.

Almost all claims to an employment tribunal are only valid if you have first reported a complaint to ACAS under the Early Conciliation Procedure. You need to do this within three months (less one day) of the incident/acts of discrimination. ACAS will issue you with a certificate once the Early Conciliation process has finished, and there are strict time limits to start an employment tribunal claim which could be as little as one month from the date of the ACAS Early Conciliation Certificate. You should seek advice from us as early as possible to ensure you do not miss any time limits.

If your complaint is about a failure to make reasonable adjustments, the three months starts when your employer could reasonably have been expected to make the adjustments. So, if your employer has delayed making adjustments you should seek advice from us straight away as the time limit may shortly be about to expire. 

Please contact us if you are considering taking any formal action or require advice about discrimination that you may be experiencing.

Bullying, harassment and stress

Find out how to tackle bullying at work, or deal with accusations of bullying.

Sick leave and sick pay

Read about your sick leave and sick pay entitlements, including absence management processes.

Health and safety

Read about how we campaign for improvements to members working environments.

Page last updated - 12/06/2024