Disability discrimination and the Equality Act 2010

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 protects people from discrimination on the basis of age, gender reassignment, sex (i.e. man or woman), race, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and disability. These are called the protected characteristics of the Act.

The Act prohibits unfair treatment in the workplace, when providing goods, facilities and services, when exercising public functions, in the disposal and management of premises, in education and by associations (such as private clubs).

This guidance deals with discrimination on grounds of disability in the workplace and looks at your rights as an employee or worker, and the steps you can take to challenge your employer if you feel you are being treated unfairly and that you may be the victim of unlawful discrimination.

The Equality Act 2010 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 protects people 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;
  • 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.  

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, including: nurses, prison officers, contract workers, office holders, people on work experience, partners in firms and barristers.     

Agency workers are covered by the Act but, their employer is their agency not necessarily the organisation in which they are working.

It also 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.

  • volunteers; or
  • people working for the armed forces; or
  • people whose employment is wholly or mainly outside of Great Britain (except where the employment has a sufficiently close connection with Great Britain);
  • certain employees who work on board a ship, aircraft or hovercraft – seek advice as to whether this exclusion applies to you if you work in this category.

Disability is defined by Section 6(1) of the Equality Act as follows:

‘A person has a disability for the purposes of this Act if he (sic) has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’

Ultimately, as this is a legal definition, only a court or a tribunal can declare whether a person has a disability under the terms of the Act or not. Your employer may ask an Occupational Health service to say whether you are covered by the Act, but in reality all they can do is give an opinion.  You may also wish to speak to the medical/ healthcare professionals involved in your treatment or care in order to ask their advice on whether you have the protected characteristic of disability.  

Physical or Mental Impairment 

  • If you have a diagnosis, it should be confirmed by written medical evidence, preferably from a medical expert i.e. a consultant grade surgeon or physician; or suitable practitioner such as your GP, Occupational Health doctor or Counsellor.
  • In the absence of a 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

  • Evidence must provide assessment of the seriousness of your impairment and its effects.
  • 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.  It does not provide an exhaustive list of day-to-day activities; these are considered to be things people do on a regular or daily basis including:   

  • 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.

 If you have an impairment that affects you in ways not listed above you may still be covered by the Act, but you would need to demonstrate what activities are affected and how these are affected by your impairment.

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.  

A person may, have more than one impairment, any one of which alone would not have a substantial effect. In such a case, account should be taken of whether the impairments together have a substantial effect overall on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.   

For example, a minor impairment which affects physical co-ordination and an irreversible but minor injury to a leg which affects mobility, when taken together, might have a substantial effect on the person’s ability to carry out certain normal day-to-day activities.   

The cumulative effect of related impairments should be taken into account when determining whether the person has experienced a long-term effect for the purposes of meeting the definition of a disabled person. The substantial adverse effect of an impairment which has developed from, or is likely* to develop from, another impairment should be taken into account when determining whether the effect has lasted, or is likely to last at least twelve months, or for the rest of the life of the person affected.

*Likely in this context, should be interpreted as meaning that it could well happen, rather than it is more probable than not that it will happen.   

Some progressive conditions (e.g. 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. 

 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 above) is still necessary.  Remember that assessment considers a person as if they are not taking any medication or receiving treatment to ease or improve their condition.

People registered as blind and some with other visual impairments and, people with severe disfigurements (includes scars, birthmarks, limb or postural deformation (including restricted bodily development), or diseases of the skin. 

  • wearing glasses or contact lenses
  • tattoos or body piercings
  • addiction to substances such as alcohol or drugs (although an impairment caused by such addition e.g. liver cirrhosis, may be covered)
  • exhibitionism or voyeurism (unless caused by a condition that this behaviour may be an accepted feature of)
  • tendency to set fires, steal or abuse.

  • In certain circumstances it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against non-disabled people because they are associated with a disabled person; or
  • because they are perceived to be disabled.

It is unlawful for an employer to treat a non-disabled employee less favourably because they have supported or been witness for a disabled employee in a discrimination claim.  This will be considered victimisation under the Act.  

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 the person’s disability. 

If you are applying for a job, 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; and
  • in order that they can take positive action, such as giving preferential treatment to disabled applicants or applicants with a particular disability.

If you are a disabled person, an employer must not treat you unfavourably because of something connected to your disability where they cannot demonstrate that what they are doing is objectively justified. This only applies if an employer knows or could reasonably have been expected to know that you are a disabled person. This is called discrimination arising from disability.  

If you want your employer to make reasonable adjustments for you at work then you must inform them of your disability in order to ensure that they know they have a legal duty to put the adjustments in place.

An employer must be aware of your disability for you to have a claim for direct discrimination or discrimination arising from disability.  

Certain types of discrimination, such as indirect discrimination, do not require that the employer be aware that you are disabled.

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 likely that occupational health will not have disclosed this unless you have consented to them doing so.

This will depend on your individual circumstances and those of the employer.    

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 your 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.

Please also see our Health Ability Passport Guidance for more information.

If you have a case to request reasonable adjustments, you may find that an employer is more likely to view this as reasonable if there is funding to help meet the cost of it.

The Government provides a scheme called Access to Work that provides Disability Employment Advisers (DEAs) who can carry out workplace assessments and, make recommendation to your employer about reasonable adjustments which may be possible. A DEA can also provide information to you and your employer about grants which may be available for employers to help meet the cost of making reasonable adjustments. If an employer is reluctant or refuses to consider involving Access to Work or implementing their recommendations, this could serve as evidence of failure to implement reasonable adjustments.

Victimisation – the Act makes provisions to prevent people from being deterred from bringing or getting involved with a complaint of disability discrimination. Both disabled and non-disabled people are protected. It is unlawful for employers to victimise someone because they brought a discrimination claim, gave evidence in a case or, made an allegation of disability discrimination.

Harassment - a person is unlawfully harassed for a reason related to his/her disability if he/she is subjected to unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating his/her dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. An example of harassment would be if you notified your employer of a need to take time off due to seeing your consultant regarding your disability. On your return to work, your manager confronts you in front of colleagues about taking time off without good reason and, your colleagues start to ignore you following this. An employer also cannot harass you because you are associated with a disabled person e.g. a parent with a disabled child, or because they wrongly believe you to be disabled. Once proven, an employer is not permitted to justify harassment and/ or victimisation.

An employer may be able to justify discrimination arising from disability if they can show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim – this represents a real, objective consideration and if the aim is legitimate, is the means of achieving it proportionate? Generalisations will not be sufficient to provide justification. It is not necessary for that justification to have been fully set out at the time the provision, criterion or practice was applied.  

Example: an employee has been on long-term sickness absence for 12 months absence due to their disability. The employee cannot say when, or if, they will be fit to return to their substantive post. The employer terminates the employee’s contract on grounds of capability due to absence (ill health). 

This dismissal may be justified depending on the nature of the job, the size of the employer and the period of absence, because the job cannot be held open for an indefinite period of time due to the resource implications for the employer. However, the employer still has to follow a fair capability procedure as otherwise the employee’s dismissal could be unfair.   

In practice, the employer will normally need to demonstrate genuine economic, technical and/ or organisational reasons behind any such act of disability related discrimination as outweighing the effects of the discrimination. They must also show that their duty with regards to reasonable adjustments has been discharged i.e. an employer will not be justified in treating a disabled employee less favourably if a reasonable adjustment would have prevented this treatment. 

If an employer’s actions are justified, then a disabled person would not be successful in a claim for disability discrimination.   

If you want advice about what you can and should expect of your employer in terms of supporting you as a disabled worker or; you would like to discuss whether what you are experiencing may be disability discrimination or have questions about the how the Equality Act may apply to you, you can contact the RCN Welfare Rights and Guidance Service

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, for example, by making a reasonable adjustment as recommended by occupational health.    

You may wish to discuss your situation with an adviser in the Welfare Rights and Guidance Service before you approach your employer for an initial discussion about your concerns.  You should also consider speaking to your local RCN representative who, although they may not be able to take the matter up on your behalf, will be a valuable source of information and support that may later be needed if your case has to be progressed.   

It is often the case that an informal discussion is all that is needed to get matters resolved satisfactorily. If an informal discussion is not successful then contact us to discuss your options. We can advise you and may be able to put you in touch with a local RCN representative who can support you from a distance, or become actively involved in your case. One option could be a mediation session with the support of your representative or an independent third party. Your employer’s policy should outline what informal methods of dispute resolution are available in your workplace.

If you are not successful in getting the situation resolved on an informal basis or through mediation or; if the situation is more serious, for example, derogatory comments being made by colleagues about your disability, then you should consider taking formal action. 

RCN Peer Support service 

Access to Work

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) England

A national organisation set up by the Government to monitor and tackle discrimination. It operates a telephone helpline for people who believe they are being discriminated against.  EHRC has a wealth of useful and informative guidance which you can obtain via their helpline and in some cases, they are able to advise and represent people with discrimination claims. Freepost RRLL-GHUX-CTRX Arndale House Arndale Centre Manchester M4 3EQ Telephone: 0845 604 6610 (Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 9am-5pm and Weds 9am-8pm).  Minicom: 0845 604 6620

The Disability Law Service

A registered charity offering free confidential legal advice on disability discrimination in employment to disabled people. It is able to take on some cases of disabled employees or job applicants. 39-45 Cavell Street  Whitechapel London E1 2BP Telephone: 0207 791 9800  Fax: 0207 791 9802 Email: advice@dls.org.uk


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Page last updated - 12/08/2021