Disability discrimination and your rights

It is against the law in the UK to discriminate against someone because of their disability. 

This is due to the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland.

In this guide, you can find out more about the law on disability discrimination, and what to do if you’ve been discriminated against. 

On this page:

What is the Equality Act 2010?

The Equality Act 2010 is the law that protects you from discrimination in England, Wales and Scotland. 

It makes it illegal to discriminate against someone at work, or in wider society, on the basis of a “protected characteristic”. Protected characteristics include disabilities. 

Discrimination is anything that puts you at a disadvantage compared to others. It can be direct or indirect. 

Why was the Equality Act 2010 introduced?

The Equality Act 2010 came into effect in England, Scotland and Wales in 2010. It replaced three older pieces of legislation:

  • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975.
  • The Race Relations Act 1976.
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The Act brought all of these pieces of legislation into one place, and added more protection for more people. 

Northern Ireland is still covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Find out more about disability discrimination law in Northern Ireland. 

What are the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010?

There are nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010.

The law makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of:

  • Age.
  • Gender reassignment. 
  • Being married or in a civil partnership.
  • Being pregnant or on maternity leave.
  • Disability.
  • Race, including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sex.
  • Sexual orientation.

What counts as a disability according to the Equality Act 2010?

Whether or not you consider yourself to be disabled is always your choice.

The Equality Act defines who is considered as “disabled” legally, for the purpose of protecting them from discrimination. 

The definition is very broad. It covers many disabilities. 

The Equality Act says you’re disabled if:

  • You have a physical or mental impairment.
  • That impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Find out more about how the Equality Act defines “disability” from Citizens Advice.

What conditions don’t count as a disability under the Equality Act 2010?

Whether or not you call yourself disabled is always your choice.

According to the law, these are the conditions that the Equality Act states do not count as impairments or disabilities:

  • A tendency to set fires.
  • A tendency to steal. 
  • A tendency to physical or sexual abuse of other people.
  • Exhibitionism and voyeurism. 

Hayfever and addictions to substances are also not considered disabilities by law. 

What is disability discrimination?

Disability discrimination is when you’re treated differently because of your disability. 

The Equality Act says that it is illegal to discriminate against anyone because:

Disability discrimination could be a one-off incident, or something that happens continually as a result of inaccessible policy or design.

You might be discriminated against in your workplace, at school or in a public place such as a shop. 

Discrimination could look like:

  • Being passed over for a job, being treated unfairly at work or being fired. 
  • Being denied entry into an event or building.
  • Your employer, school or university failing to make reasonable adjustments for you. 

Types of disability discrimination

Direct disability discrimination

Direct discrimination is when you are treated differently because of your disability. 

For example, a child is refused entry to a soft play area because they are disabled. 

Indirect disability discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs when you are negatively affected by something because of your disability, even though this is an unintended consequence of design or policy. 

For example, a person can’t get into an event because it isn’t wheelchair accessible. 

Discrimination arising from disability

“Discrimination arising from disability” is a legal phrase that describes discrimination based on something that is a result of your disability, rather than being based on your disability itself. 

For example, a person is refused entry to a shop because they have a guide dog. 

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

Under the Equality Act, employers, organisations and people providing services have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people. 

This is so that disabled people can access work, services and public functions without being disadvantaged.

An example of failure to make reasonable adjustments could be an employer refusing to accommodate requests for time off to attend medical appointments related to a long-term health condition. 

Find out more about reasonable adjustments and how to ask for them.

Other types of disability discrimination

  • Harassment. 
  • Victimisation of people who are taking (or helping others take) legal action related to disability discrimination. 
  • Discrimination by association (for example, unfairly penalising a carer for taking time off work). 

Examples of disability discrimination

Karla’s story

A young boy with blonde hair wearing a shirt and jeans smiles as he bangs a drum with drum sticks.

Karla is mum to Alfie, a little boy with complex needs. She has experienced indirect disability discrimination when people have made judgemental comments about Alfie’s behaviour. 

“I’ve been in the supermarket with Alfie when he’s having a sensory overload meltdown, and people have told me that he’s being naughty. 

“Even family members have told me to ignore Alfie’s behaviour so that he ‘gets over it’.

“These phrases are upsetting, hurtful and also quite damaging to hear as a parent. They make you question your parenting skills and your own knowledge of your child.”

Read Karla’s story. 

Patrick’s story

Patrick had a bad experience with an employer who failed to make reasonable adjustments for his visual impairment. 

He was given the wrong equipment to do his job. 

“For 18 months, I could only do part of my job. It was very difficult, but I had to keep on using the equipment that they’d provided. There wasn’t much else I could do. 

“I felt disheartened. I was trying to explain to my employer why this magnifier wasn’t right for me and they just weren’t really able to understand. They didn’t have experience of having employees with visual impairments.”

Read Patrick’s story.

Disability discrimination in the workplace

Disability discrimination at work can take many different forms. 

As described above, it could be direct or indirect discrimination, discrimination arising from disability or failure to make reasonable adjustments. 

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against you on the basis of disability, whether you’re applying for a job, or already employed. 

The Equality Act 2010 also protects you from experiencing harassment or bullying at work related to your disability. 

It also states that your employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments so that you can do your job.

Your employer is responsible for protecting you from disability discrimination at work. They have a duty of care towards you. 

What are reasonable adjustments?

Reasonable adjustments are any changes that can be made to meet someone’s needs, and to make sure they’re not at a disadvantage because of their disability. 

In the workplace, this might mean:

  • Shorter or more flexible working hours. 
  • Assistive technology, equipment or software.
  • Making sure the building and your workspace is accessible. 
  • Using a more accessible communication style.

If your disability puts you at a disadvantage in your workplace, and your employer knows (or could reasonably be expected to know) that you need reasonable adjustments, then they have a legal responsibility to make these adjustments for you. 

Failure to make reasonable adjustments is a type of disability discrimination. 

Find out more about what reasonable adjustments you can ask for, and how to ask your employer.

What can I do about disability discrimination?

If you experience discrimination, it can be hard to fight back. But you deserve to have your voice heard. 

The best thing to do first is to have an informal conversation about what’s happened. It might be possible to resolve what’s happened to you without having to go through a formal process.

Whether your problem happened at work, in a shop or at an event, it’s best to go to your manager or the person in charge and talk to them about your concerns. 

If you don’t get a good response, you might want to take things further by following the organisation’s official complaints procedure. 

You can find out how to do this by speaking to HR (if it’s your workplace), or looking at the website of the organisation or business you’d like to make a complaint to. 

If this process doesn’t resolve your issue, you might consider legal action. This can be a complicated and expensive process. 

ACAS and Citizens Advice can give you legal advice and support. 

Support from Sense

We’re here for people with complex disabilities and their families all over the UK. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer.

This content was last reviewed in April 2024. We’ll review it again in 2026.