Your guide to care and support

Disability, discrimination and the Equality Act

The Equality Act is a law that came into effect in October 2010. It protects people from being discriminated against because of their disability.

It also protects people from being discriminated against because of their caring responsibilities.

The Equality Act replaced previous laws protecting people from discrimination, including most of the Disability Discrimination Act. 

Learn more about the Equality Act in Equality Act 2010: What do I need to know? Disability quick start guide (PDF, 309.82kb).

Do I count as 'disabled'?

The Equality Act introduced several changes in the law that relate to disabled people. It uses a broader definition of disability, which means more people are protected than with previous legislation.

A person is defined as being disabled under the Equality Act if: 

  • they have a physical or mental impairment
  • the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities

For an impairment to have a "substantial" effect, it must have more than a minor or trivial effect on someone's ability to do everyday tasks such as preparing food, having a conversation, getting washed, walking or using transport.

"Long term" means the impairment must last at least 12 months or be expected to last at least 12 months. There are special rules about recurring or fluctuating conditions. GOV.UK has guidance about the Act's definition of disability.

Someone who has cancer or multiple sclerosis (MS) or is living with HIV will automatically be considered to be a disabled person under the Act. The Macmillan website has more information about discrimination at work against people with cancer as well as a guide for employers (PDF, 875kb).

Some conditions are excluded from the Equality Act's definition of disability. This includes drug and alcohol misuse. However, someone with one of these conditions could still be classed as disabled if they have an impairment that meets the Act's definition.

The Act will look at the effects of their impairment, rather than its cause, so someone who has long-term depression as a result of alcohol misuse could be a disabled person under the Act.

In most cases, the Equality Act also protects people who met its conditions for disability in the past but are no longer disabled. This could include someone who was diagnosed with cancer but has now recovered.

Protection for disabled people at work and as consumers

People with disabilities are already protected against discrimination in educational settings, as well as employment-related discrimination and harassment.

Generally employers won't be able to ask potential employees about their health or disability before offering them a job because of the Equality Act. Employers will only be able to ask these sorts of questions if there's a good reason.

Find out more about disability in the workplace.

Organisations have an "anticipatory" duty, which means they can't wait until a disabled person wants to use their services, but must think in advance (and on an ongoing basis) about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need.

The Equality Act also protects disabled people against direct discrimination and harassment when buying goods and using services. This could include shopping, going to a leisure centre, using public transport or eating at a restaurant. It also covers services such as health and social care.

Employers and service providers must make "reasonable adjustments" for a disabled person if they would otherwise be at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people.

Reasonable adjustments in the workplace could include adapted equipment or adjusted hours to help a disabled person do their job. For a service provider or business, a reasonable adjustment could be a ramp to increase the accessibility of their premises, or disability awareness training for their staff.

What's considered a reasonable adjustment will depend on the individual situation. If there's a particular service or business that you visit often, it may be helpful to speak to them about ways they could meet your needs. GOV.UK has more information on reasonable adjustments for workers who are disabled.

The Equality Act also outlines the principle of indirect discrimination by disability. Indirect discrimination can happen if something that applies equally to everyone has a particularly adverse effect on disabled people. However, it won't apply if an employer or service provider can show they have a fair and balanced reason for their actions.

Discriminating against older people

People are already protected against age-related discrimination and harassment at work. The Equality Act also includes provisions that protect older people against discrimination and harassment when buying goods or using services. This can include:

  • direct discrimination – where someone is unfairly treated in comparison with another; for example, where an older person is refused admission to a gym or a nightclub simply because of their age, where a younger person would be admitted
  • indirect discrimination – where a rule or practice applies to everyone, but puts a particular group of people at a disadvantage; for example, where an optician allows payment for spectacles by instalments, but restricts eligibility to those in work: this practice applies to everyone, but puts pensioners at a disadvantage
  • harassment related to age – this is unwanted conduct that violates a person's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person; for example, where a computer salesperson makes assumptions about an older person's ability to use a computer, and makes offensive remarks and jokes about this

Page last reviewed: 15/01/2015

Next review due: 15/01/2017


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Media last reviewed: 17/04/2014

Next review due: 17/04/2016