Law guide: Workplace

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Disability discrimination

Disability discrimination

Disability discrimination

The rights set out in this section apply to all categories of staff who may work in a business, including workers, employees, contractors, partners or a director, but not volunteers. It doesn't matter how many hours you work to be protected by anti-discrimination legislation. For more information, see Employees, workers and the self-employed.

Disabled workers have the same anti-discrimination protection as other workers, but they have additional rights under the Equality Act 2010.

The laws against disability discrimination at work cover every part of employment. This includes recruitment, terms and conditions of employment, pay and benefits, status, training, promotion and transfer opportunities, as well as redundancy, dismissal and non-renewal of fixed term contracts.

What is a disability?

The definition of a disability is a legal and not a medical definition. This means that sometimes a medical condition may be regarded as a disability by a doctor but will not be a disability for the purposes of disability discrimination.

To be protected by the Act, you must have:

  • A physical or mental impairment
  • The impairment has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on your ability to do your day-to-day activities.

This includes your ability to participate fully and effectively in working life on an equal basis with other workers and includes activities such as:

  • using a telephone
  • reading
  • using public transport
  • mobility
  • the ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects
  • speech
  • hearing
  • eyesight.

Examples of impairments

The following is a non-exhaustive list of conditions that are regarded as impairments, which include:

  • Sensory impairments – such as total or partial loss of sight or hearing
  • Fluctuating or recurring conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, ME, depression and epilepsy
  • Progressive conditions such as lupus, dementia and muscular dystrophy
  • Organ specific impairments such as asthma, heart disease, stokes and thrombosis
  • Developmental conditions such as autism and dyslexia
  • Impairments caused by injury to the body or brain
  • Mental health conditions or illnesses such as schizophrenia, eating disorders, depression and self harming
  • Conditions related to learning difficulties

An impairment, which may result in a worker being protected under the EA, can result from the cause or effect of another illness. It also may result from conditions which cannot be described as an illness, such as disfigurement or genetic deformity.

Some physical conditions can result from an underlying mental condition, or can cause a mental condition, such as depression.

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify whether a medical or physical condition can be classified as impairment under the EA and you should take legal advice if you are unsure.

The effect of the condition

Unless the condition is already recognised in law to be a disability, you must prove that it has a 'substantial adverse effect' on your day to day activities. This will usually be determined by the facts surrounding your particular circumstances. However, note that:

  • A progressive condition must have some adverse effect now, and be likely in the future to have a substantial effect
  • If a condition has periods of remission then you must prove that it is likely to recur. 'Likely' means 'could well happen' in this context.

The meaning of 'long term'

The impairment must have a long term effect on you as of the date of any alleged act of discrimination. 'Long term' includes impairments that:

  • Have lasted at least 12 months
  • Are likely (i.e. more probable than not) to last for at least 12 months
  • Are likely (i.e. more probable than not) to last for the rest of a worker's life
  • Are likely (i.e. could well happen) to recur if in remission

Day-to-day activities

This can include day-to-day activities like using a telephone, reading or using public transport.

Where measures are taken to treat or correct an impairment that would be likely to have a substantial, adverse effect on the ability of a person to carry out normal day-to-day activities, that impairment is still treated as amounting to a disability. For example epilepsy, which although controlled by medication, may still amount to a disability.

Types of claims

Direct disability discrimination

This means that, because you are disabled, you are treated less favourably than another worker who is not disabled but has the same (or at least not materially different) abilities as you. For example, a job advert might state that disabled applicants will not be considered. This might give a disabled applicant, who is otherwise qualified and able to do the job, a claim for direct disability discrimination.

The law also extends to protecting you from direct disability discrimination if your employer treats you less favourably, based on:

  • Their perception of whether you have a disability, regardless of whether or not the perception is correct. For example, if you are refused a promotion because your employer believes you to be dyslexic but your colleague is promoted, whose circumstances are similar to yours, except that your employer doesn't have the same perception about them, you may have been subjected to direct disability discrimination.
  • The disability of another person (also known as discrimination by association). For example, if you are being discriminated against because you have to care for a disabled family member, even though you are not disabled yourself, or you refuse to comply with instructions that would require you to treat someone less favourably because of their disability. For example, if a managing director exerts pressure on a line manager to dismiss a worker because of their disability. The pressure on the line manager will amount to unlawful conduct.

It also may occur if a recruitment decision contains a discriminatory statement, even when there's not an active recruitment process underway and no identifiable victim.

Your employer could be held liable for direct disability discrimination even if they did not intend to discriminate against you or (in some cases) was unaware of the disability.

Your employer cannot defend a claim of direct disability discrimination by justifying it (arguing that their actions were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim).

Indirect disability discrimination

This will occur where your employer equally applies a formal or informal provision, criteria or practice to all workers in the workplace that puts workers with a disability at a particular disadvantage when compared with other workers. A worker within the disadvantaged group must also actually suffer that particular disadvantage.

It also applies if you're not in the group that suffers the disadvantage, but you also suffer a disadvantage alongside the workers with the protected characteristic.

It does not matter whether or not this has been done intentionally.

Your employer can defend against indirect discrimination claims by justifying the use of the unlawful practice, provisions or criteria, if it can show that its application is a proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim.

Discrimination arising from disability

This protects workers from being treated unfairly because of something connected to their disability. There is no need to compare the disabled worker with another worker. The reason does not have to be the disability itself and can include something related to it, such as an aid or device (e.g. the use of a wheelchair) or the amount of sick leave taken in a year.

For example, a disabled worker who is dismissed because they are regularly absent from work due to illness could claim discrimination arising from a disability because they're being discriminated against for a reason (the absence from work) which relates to their disability.

This type of discrimination is unlawful, where an employer either knows or could reasonably be expected to know, that the worker has a disability.

Employers can defend claims by justifying their actions, if they can show that its application is a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim.

An employer would, for example, be able to justify removing a diabetic worker from driving duties for the material and substantial reason that they would pose a risk to themselves and other road users.

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

Your employer has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' to ensure that workplace provisions, criteria, practices or any physical features of the workplace do not put you at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled workers. Examples of the sort of adjustments your employer should consider, in consultation with you include:

  • Allocating some of your work to someone else
  • Transferring you to another post or another place of work
  • Swapping roles with another worker
  • Retiring you on medical grounds and then re-employing you in another role
  • Making adjustments to the buildings where you work
  • Being flexible about your hours – allowing you to have different core working hours and to be away from the office for assessment, treatment or rehabilitation
  • Providing training
  • Providing modified equipment
  • Making instructions and manuals more accessible
  • Providing a reader or interpreter

Your employer's duty to make reasonable adjustments will only arise if it knows or could reasonably be expected to know that a person (including a job applicant) is disabled and that they are suffering or are likely to suffer a substantial disadvantage because of a workplace provision, criteria or practice or any physical features of the workplace.

What are reasonable adjustments?

You can play an active role in discussing these arrangements with your employer. You might also want to encourage your employer to speak to someone with expertise in providing work-related help for disabled people.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (see below) provides detailed guidance and advice for you and your employer about whether an adjustment is reasonable or not. Issues to consider include:

  • How effective will an adjustment be?
  • Will it mean that your disability is slightly less of a disadvantage or will it significantly reduce the disadvantage?
  • Is it practical?
  • Will it cause much disruption?
  • Will it help other people in the workplace?
  • Is the cost prohibitive?

You may want to make sure that your employer is aware of the Access to Work programme run by Jobcentre Plus. Through this programme, employers can get advice on appropriate adjustments and possibly some financial help towards the cost of the adjustments.


Harassment is unwanted conduct towards a worker by an employer or another worker, because of that worker's actual or perceived disability, or association with someone with a disability. This applies to any conduct that violates a worker's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, degrading or offensive environment, even if it was not intended as such.

For example, if the unwanted conduct relates to the disability of your partner or friends, it may still be unlawful harassment if you find it to be degrading or offensive.

If it is reasonable that the unwanted conduct has had an intimidating or humiliating effect on you, then you may have a harassment claim against your employer (even where someone didn't intend to harass you). Note that you will not be protected if you are over sensitive and unreasonably take offence to an innocent comment.

Workers who are not the subject of the unwanted conduct will also be able to make harassment claims for behaviour that they find offensive, even if they themselves do not have a protected characteristic.

Employers will be liable for any acts of harassment undertaken by their workers in the course of their employment – whether they knew about it or not – if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it. 'In the course of employment' means 'done to you whilst at work' or 'done to you while 'in a workplace-related environment'. Employers can't defend a claim of harassment by showing that they did not authorise it or on the grounds that the actions were reasonable or warranted.

An employer can, however, escape liability for harassment, if it took reasonably practicable steps to prevent it.


Victimisation happens when you are being treated less favourably because:

  • You have asserted your rights not to be discriminated against based on your disability by making a complaint about disability discrimination
  • You gave evidence or information in a complaint of disability discrimination
  • You take any other action under the Equaliy Act
  • You have alleged that your employer or another worker has contravened the disability discrimination legislation
  • Your employer believes that you have done or may do any of these things

Positive action

Positive action in training and applying for particular positions

If an employer reasonably thinks that a group of its workers who share a protected characteristic (race, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, disability or religion or belief) either...

  • suffer a disadvantage connected to their protected characteristic,
  • have needs that are different from the needs of those who do not have their protected characteristic, or
  • have a disproportionately low participation in an activity, such as partaking in training activities, doing particular work or filling particular posts in an employer's workforce,

...then the employer can take any proportionate action which, either; enables or encourages the group of workers to overcome or minimise their disadvantage; meets their needs; or enables or encourages them to participate in the activity.

Employers are allowed to provide special training to members of the group. They can also encourage members of the group to apply to do particular work or fill posts (for example, by saying that applications from them will be particularly welcome).

This does not mean that employers can discriminate in favour of the members of the group when it comes to choosing people to do the work or fill the posts, unless they meet the circumstances described below under 'Positive action in recruitment and for promotions', as that could be unlawful discrimination.

Positive action is not the same as 'positive discrimination', which is where members of a particular group who have a protected characteristic are treated more favourably regardless of the circumstances.

Positive action in recruitment and for promotions

The Equality Act makes it lawful for employers to take positive action when recruiting and making internal promotions in order to overcome a disadvantage connected with a protected characteristic or where the inclusion of people with the protected characteristic in a particular activity is disproportionately low. Employers will be able take positive action where all of the following apply:

  • There are two equally qualified candidates to choose between
  • An employer does not have a policy of treating persons with the protected characteristic more favourably
  • Positively discriminating is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

The Act does not require employers to take positive action and it is therefore voluntary.

Positive discrimination

Positive discrimination is unlawful except if used when recruiting or promoting individuals in the limited circumstances described above.

What to do if you're discriminated against

If you think that you're suffering disability discrimination at work, you should talk to your employer and explain why you feel you are being discriminated against. If necessary, put your complaint in writing. An employee representative (such as a trade union official) may be able to help you.

If your employer doesn't have a grievance procedure, you should set out your complaint in a letter and hand it to your line manager. If your line manager is the problem, then hand your letter to any HR manager or your line manager's supervisor.

Your employer should then arrange a grievance meeting with you. If the outcome of the meeting is unsatisfactory, you have the right to appeal to a manager who was not previously involved in your grievance. For more information, see Grievance procedures in England, Wales and Scotland

If you are unhappy with the outcome of your appeal, you may be able to take your claim to an Employment Tribunal. You should, however, take legal advice prior to proceeding. You'll need to do this within three months of the act of discrimination taking place. If the discrimination extends over a period, you must bring your claim within 3 months from the end of that period.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has wide-ranging powers and can take legal action on your behalf. They promote equality and fair treatment of workers, customers and the users of services. It is also a good source of advice if you feel you may have been discriminated against at work or elsewhere.

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