Prepared by Niall McMurtry, RNIB
[email protected]
November 2017

Your rights under the Equality Act (2010): What counts as discrimination and what responsibilities do employers and higher education institutions have?

What the Equality Act says about disability discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 says that you must not be discriminated against because:

  • you have a disability;
  • someone thinks you have a disability- this is known as discrimination by perception;
  • you are connected to someone with a disability- this is known as discrimination by association.

It is not unlawful discrimination to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person.

What is a disability?

In the Equality Act a disability means a physical or a mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day-to-day activities.

You are also covered by the Act if you have a progressive condition like HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis, even if you are currently able to carry out normal day-to-day activities. You are protected as soon as you are diagnosed with a progressive condition.

You are also covered by the Act if you had a disability in the past.

For example, if you had a mental health condition in the past which lasted for over 12 months, but you have now recovered, you are still protected from discrimination because of that disability.

You automatically meet the definition of a ‘disabled person’ under the Act if you have a certificate of vision impairment (CVI) – either as sight impaired or severely sight impaired.

What is disability discrimination?

This is when you are treated less well or put at a disadvantage for a reason that relates to your disability in one of the situations that are covered by the Equality Act. The treatment could be a one-off action, the application of a rule or policy or the existence of physical or communication barriers which make access difficult or impossible.

 The discrimination does not have to be intentional to be unlawful.

Different types of disability discrimination 

There are six main types of disability discrimination:

1. Direct Discrimination 

This happens when someone treats you worse than another person in a similar situation because of disability.

For example, during an interview, a job applicant tells the potential employer that he has multiple sclerosis. The employer decides not to appoint him even though he’s the best candidate they have interviewed, because they assume he will need a lot of time off sick.

2. Indirect Discrimination 

Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation has a particular policy or way of working that has a worse impact on disabled people compared to people who are not disabled.

Indirect disability discrimination is unlawful unless the organisation or employer is able to show that there is a good reason for the policy and it is proportionate. This is known as objective justification.

For example, a job advert states that all applicants must have a driving licence. This puts some disabled people at a disadvantage because they may not have a licence because, for example, they have epilepsy. If the advert is for a bus driver job, the requirement will be justified. If it is for a teacher to work across two schools, it will be more difficult to justify.

3. Failure to make reasonable adjustments

Under the Act employers and organisations have a responsibility to make sure that disabled people can access jobs, education and services as easily as non-disabled people. This is known as the ‘duty to make reasonable adjustments’.

Disabled people can experience discrimination if the employer or organisation doesn’t make a reasonable adjustment. This is known as a ‘failure to make reasonable adjustments’.

For example, an employee with mobility impairment needs a parking space close to the office. However, her employer only gives parking spaces to senior managers and refuses to give her a designated parking space.

What is reasonable depends on a number of factors, including the resources available to the organisation making the adjustment. If an organisation already has a number of parking spaces it would be reasonable for it to designate one close to the entrance for the employee.

4. Discrimination arising from disability 

The Act also protects people from discrimination arising from disability. This protects you from being treated badly because of something connected to your disability, such as having an assistance dog or needing time off for medical appointments. This does not apply unless the person who discriminated against you knew you had a disability or ought to have known.

For example, a private nursery refuses to give a place to a little boy because he is not toilet trained. His parents have told them that he isn’t toilet trained because he has Hirschsprung’s Disease, but they still refuse to give him a place. This is discrimination arising from the little boy’s disability.

For example, an employee with cancer is prevented from receiving a bonus because of time she has taken off to receive treatment.

Discrimination arising from disability is unlawful unless the organisation or employer is able to show that there is a good reason for the treatment and it is proportionate. This is known as objective justification.

For example, an employee whose eyesight has seriously deteriorated cannot do as much work as his non-disabled colleagues. If his employer sought to dismiss him, after ruling out the possibility of redeployment, the employer would need to show that this was for good reason and was proportionate.

5. Harassment 

Harassment occurs when someone treats you in a way that makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded.

For example, a disabled woman is regularly sworn at and called names by colleagues at work because of her disability.

Harassment can never be justified. However, if an organisation or employer can show it did everything it could to prevent people who work for it from behaving like that, you will not be able to make a claim for harassment against it, although you could make a claim against the harasser.

6. Victimisation 

This is when you are treated badly because you have made a complaint of discrimination under the Equality Act. It can also occur if you are supporting someone who has made a complaint of discrimination.

For example, an employee has made a complaint of disability discrimination. The employer threatens to sack them unless they withdraw the complaint.

For example, an employer threatens to sack a member of staff because he thinks she intends to support a colleague’s disability discrimination claim.

What else does the Act protect against?

Being asked health questions designed to screen out disabled job applicants

The Act says that employers cannot ask job applicants about their health or disability until they have been offered a job, except in specific circumstances where the information is necessary for the application process or a requirement of the job.

For example, a job applicant fills in an application form which asks people to state whether they are taking any medication. Unless there is a good reason why the employer needs to know this information, then the question should not be asked.

For more information on this please see our guidance on pre-employment health questions.

Circumstances when being treated differently due to disability is lawful

A) Non-disabled people - it is always lawful to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person.

B) Other disabled people - treating a disabled person with a particular disability more favourably than other disabled people may be lawful in some circumstances.

For example:

Where having a particular disability is essential for the job. This is called an occupational requirement. For example, an organisation supporting deaf people might require that an employee whose role is providing counselling to British Sign Language users is a deaf BSL user.

Where an organisation is taking positive action to encourage or develop people with a particular disability

For example, an employer is aware that people with learning disabilities have a particularly high rate of unemployment, so sets up a mentoring and job-shadowing programme for people with learning disabilities to help them prepare to apply for jobs.

More about employment and applying for jobs

  • Employment provisions under the Act apply from the recruitment stage onwards.
  • The application form / process should be accessible.
  • A disabled candidate should be offered reasonable adjustments for interview and any tests or assessment activities.
  • An applicant is not under any obligation to disclose their disability. However, if an employer is not aware of someone’s disability then there is no obligation to make reasonable adjustments.
  • If a disability is disclosed, an employer cannot ask about the health of an employee prior to offering a job.

What if I need time off to attend hospital appointments for treatment?

If an employee has to attend hospital appointments for ongoing treatment in relation to their disability, they should not be expected to take annual leave.

This time off should not trigger the employer’s sickness / absence procedure. If they are disciplined because of the time off then this may be discrimination arising from disability, where a person is treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability.

What should I do if I feel I’m facing discrimination by my employer?

Disabled employees who find they are experiencing discrimination in the workplace should complain to their employer using the grievance procedure. However, if the employee is considering taking legal action against their employer, they should also be mindful of any deadlines they must adhere to. They should seek advice at the earliest opportunity. The matter could be resolved without the need for litigation. If the employee is a member of a Trade Union they should seek their support as soon as possible.

Helpful schemes

Access to Work

Access to Work is run by the Department for Work and Pensions. The scheme can help with the cost of adaptations, equipment and other costs to enable a disabled person to fulfil their job role. Employers will often be asked to contribute to these costs. Funding may cover the cost of travel and a support worker to help with certain job tasks. Find out more at:

Disability confident employer scheme

This is a scheme that employers can sign up to. It means participating employers have committed to actions to be positive about recruiting disabled people. Find out more at:

Higher education

Higher education institutions also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments and to ensure they don’t treat disabled students less favourably.

Universities have disabled student services – these will vary in quality and it’s worth doing research to find out about the services a university is offering.

Disability Rights UK runs a disabled students’ helpline:

UCAS also offers advice and support:

Disabled students allowances

Disabled people intending to study in higher education can apply for a disabled students' allowance.  This may be available to fund specialist equipment or personal support, such as a reader or note-taker.

Disability Rights UK: Disability Students’ Allowance Factsheet


The majority of this note has been obtained from the Equality and Human Rights Commission website: