Equality Act 2010 – Definition of Disability

Focus on Disability - For Disabled People, the Elderly and their Carers in the UK

The Equality Act 2010 replaced most of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The Act is the law which bans unfair treatment and helps achieve equal opportunities in the workplace and in wider society.

Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010

You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’.

The Equality Act 2010 doesn’t apply to Northern Ireland – find out more on NI Direct..

What ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ mean

  • ‘substantial’ is more than minor or trivial – eg it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed
  • ‘long-term’ means 12 months or more – eg a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection

There are special rules about recurring or fluctuating conditions, for example, arthritis. For more details about the special rules download the ‘Equality Act Guidance’.

Download ‘Equality Act Guidance’

Progressive conditions

A progressive condition is a condition that gets worse over time. People with progressive conditions can be classed as disabled.

However, you automatically meet the disability definition under the Equality Act 2010 from the day you’re diagnosed with HIV infection, cancer or multiple sclerosis.

What isn’t counted as a disability

Some conditions aren’t covered by the disability definition. These include addiction to non–prescribed drugs or alcohol. To find out about the conditions which aren’t covered, download the ‘Equality Act Guidance’.

To be classified as disabled does not mean you have to be blind or deaf. If you suffer from long-term illness you could also be considered disabled.

Some of the common disabilities which classify you as disabled could be:

Sight Loss, one or both eyes
Hearing Loss, one or both ears
Mental impairment or learning difficulty, such as manic depression
Conditions such as :
Cancer (from diagnosis)
HIV (from diagnosis)
Multiple Sclerosis (from diagnosis)
Progressive conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
Physical disability
Mobility problems
Loss of function in one or both hands

This is not a complete list and if you have any of these conditions which is likely to impact your daily life for more than 12 months, you could be classified as disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

If you have a progressive condition, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis, you will not be covered just because your condition has been diagnosed. You will only come under the definition used in the DDA from the time that you first develop symptoms that have an adverse effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities. The effect need not be substantial as long as it would eventually be expected to be. Similarly, you will not be covered by the Act just because you have a genetic predisposition to a particular condition, such as Huntington’s chorea or thalassaemia.

If your disability is helped by medication or by equipment such as a hearing aid or artificial limb, this will not be taken into account when considering whether your impairment has a substantial effect on your day-to-day activities. Note, however, that an exception is made if you wear glasses or contact lenses in that it is the effect on your vision with the lenses that is considered.


The Equality Act 2010 provides disabled people with protection from discrimination in a range of areas, including in employment and occupation.

This means that employers:

  • must not directly discriminate against a person because of their actual or perceived disability, or because they associate with a disabled person
  • must not treat a disabled person less favourably for a reason related to his or her impairment, unless that treatment can be justified for example an employer may reject someone who has a severe back problem where the job entails heavy lifting.
  • must not have procedures, policy or practices which, although applicable to all workers, disproportionately disadvantage those who share a particular disability, unless these can be justified
  • must make reasonable adjustments in the recruitment and employment of disabled people. This can include, for example, adjustments to recruitment and selection procedures, to terms and conditions of employment, to working arrangements and physical changes to the premises or equipment
  • must not treat an employee unfairly who has made or supported a complaint about discrimination because of disability.

Disabled employees are also protected from harassment. Harassment is unwanted conduct related to disability which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.

Employers should ensure they have policies in place which are designed to prevent discrimination in:

    • recruitment and selection
    • determining pay
    • training and development
    • selection for promotion
    • discipline and grievances
    • countering bullying and harassment


Employment Frequenty asked questions:

Must employers take an employee’s disability into account:

Yes. If an employee has a disability that is making it difficult to work, employers should consider what reasonable adjustments they can make in the workplace to help or schedule an interview with the employee to discuss what can be done to support them. This could be as simple as supplying an adequate, ergonomic chair or power-assisted piece of equipment. Reasonable adjustments also include re-deployment to a different type of work if necessary.

What can an employee do if they think they have been discriminated against:

If an employee feels they been discriminated against, they will be able to bring a claim to an Employment Tribunal. However, it’s best to talk to their employer first to try to sort out the matter informally, in order to minimise the negative effects on all parties involved.

Through the Acas Helpline (08457 47 47 47) you can get advice on specific problems, and explore alternatives to an Employment Tribunal claim, such as mediation or Pre-Claim Conciliation, where appropriate.

ACAS website: https://www.acas.org.uk/

What is meant by discrimination by association:

Discrimination by association is where an employee may be discriminated against because of their association with another person. An example of this could be where an employer discriminates against the employee because a close relative has a disability.

What is third party harassment:

The Equality Act makes an employer potentially liable for harassment of employees by people who are not employees such as customers or clients. Employers will only be liable when harassment has occurred on at least two previous occasions, and are aware that it has taken place, and have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it from happening again

Trade organisations also have a duty under the DDA not to discriminate against you as a member or potential member and are also required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their potential and existing members.

ExemptionsThe DDA does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees. Nor does it apply to people serving in the armed forces, police officers, fire fighters, prison officers, those working on board ship , aircraft or hovercraft or anyone whose work is mainly outside the UK. Small employers are however encouraged to follow the guidance in the Code of Practice.

If your employer does not own premises but rents on a lease then the landlord cannot unreasonably refuse permission for the premises to be altered to accommodate you. However they may attach reasonable conditions to their permission e.g. returning the premises to the original condition when vacating them. If the landlord does unreasonably refuse your employer permission to alter your workplace then you can take the landlord to an employment tribunal.

Employment Tribunals

Access to goods and services

Since 2/12/96 it has been unlawful for agencies (service providers) who provide goods or services directly to the general public to discriminate against disabled people. Service providers include commercial businesses such as shops, hotels, banks, cinemas, restaurants and telecommunications companies. The term also includes those providing public services such as hospitals, railway stations, libraries, swimming pools and government offices. The size of the company makes no difference, nor does it matter whether or not you pay for the service. Insurance companies are also covered but special rules apply. Note, however, that private clubs and associations are exempt from the Act in relation to serving their members

You will have been discriminated against if a service provider treats you less favourably than someone else for a reason relating to your disability, and this treatment cannot be ‘justified’. Examples of discrimination would include refusing to serve you, offering you a lower standard of service on less favourable terms. There are some grounds under which treating a disabled person less favourably can be justified, for example, health and safety where a risk can be proven.

Reasonable adjustments Since October 1999, service providers have also been required to make reasonable changes to policy, practice or procedures that make it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use their service; to take reasonable steps to obtain aids, such as induction loops, that will help disabled people use their service; and where a service is based in inaccessible premises, service providers will be required to take reasonable steps to provide their services by alternate means. From 2004, service providers will be required to take reasonable steps to remove or alter a feature of their premises that make it unreasonably difficult or impossible for a disabled person to use the service.


Since 2/12/96 it has been unlawful for anyone letting or selling land or property to discriminate against disabled people. Most types of premises are included in the provisions – houses, flats, hostels and business premises – though hotels and guest houses are covered by the Goods and Services section of the Act, as is the provision of general housing information – see access to goods and services above.

The DDA applies to almost any agency involved in letting or selling property including: councils, housing associations, private landlords, estate agencies, accommodation agencies, banks and building societies, property developers and owner occupiers.

You will have been discriminated against if you are treated less favourably than someone else for a reason relating to your disability and this treatment cannot be ‘justified’. For example, if you were charged a higher rent or higher deposit than other tenants, for a reason related to your disability, then your landlord would be guilty of discrimination. The Act also makes the harassment of disabled people unlawful.

The Act exempts from its provisions landlords who let rooms to six or fewer people in their own homes and there is no legal obligation on anyone selling or letting property to alter the premises in order to make them accessible for you (this includes giving permission for you to carry out the adjustments).


These sections of the DDA came into force in September 1996. However they do not at present give you any enforceable rights as an individual. If an education building is being used for non-educational purposes, then the Goods and services provisions of the Act still apply.


The Act places a duty on schools in England and Wales to include in their annual reports; details of their arrangements for admitting disabled pupils, how they will ensure that those pupils receive the same treatment as other pupils and what facilities they will provide to enable disabled pupils to access the education being offered.

The DDA does not apply to schools in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The relevant legislation in Scotland is the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 and in Northern Ireland it is Article 8(3) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996

Further Education

The DDA places a duty on Further Education Funding Councils in England and Wales to ensure that further education colleges publish disability statements with information about their facilities for disabled students. The Act also requires the Funding Councils to report back to government on their progress. Statutes are already in force covering development plans in further education colleges in Scotland. Further education colleges in Northern Ireland are not currently covered but may be in the future.

Higher education The DDA places a duty on Higher Education Funding Councils in England, Wales and Scotland to take account of the needs of disabled students and require institutions which they fund to provide disability statements.


the Public Transport Vehicles section of the Act covers taxis, buses, coaches, trains and trams. Transport termini (airports, bus and rail stations, etc) are covered under the Goods and Services section of the Act (see access to goods and services). The Act gives the government the power to require all new public transport vehicles and newly licensed taxis to be accessible to disabled people. However, the Act gives the government a fairly wide power to grant exemptions.


For public transport including hackney carriage taxis, Transport 2010 A Ten Year Plan has been established that aims to make them all accessible to disabled passengers. For taxi drivers, this means that it will be an offence if their vehicle fails to conform to the Accessibility Regulations by 2020.

The regulations are initially being drafted in to ensure that all new taxis are designed and manufactured to allow access and easy use for as wide a range of disabilities as possible, but as yet older taxis are not forced to comply. Licensed taxis are only required to be wheelchair accessible in some cities – but not all.

The drivers of both taxis and minicabs are under a duty to carry any guide dogs, hearing dogs or certain other assistance dogs in their vehicles. They are not allowed to charge extra for this and it is an offence to do so. If the driver does charge you extra, they could be fined up to £1,000.

see: Taxis and Disability

Access to buses and coaches

Regulations covering buses and coaches, the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 (PSVAR), have been made and cover all new buses and coaches introduced into service since 31 December 2000 which can carry more than 22 passengers and are used to provide a local or scheduled service.

See Department of Transport page: https://www.dft.gov.uk/topics/access/buses-and-coaches/

Train and tram

Regulations came into force on 1/1/99. However see page https://www.dft.gov.uk/topics/access/rail/rail-vehicles/ for more information.

The Transport section of the Act has not yet been fully implemented.

More information on Disability Discrimination in Northern Ireland from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Equality and Human Rights Commission works to eliminate discrimination, reduce inequality and protect human rights. The new commission merges the former Disability Rights Commission (DRC), Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

Website: www.equalityhumanrights.com/

Disability Rights Commission (DRC)
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) closed on 28 September 2007. See Equality and Human Rights Commission above. Disability Conciliation Service (DCS)
Through conciliation, the DCS offers disabled people a uniquely accessible and empowering alternative to court action as a way of exercising their civil rights under Parts III and IV of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Disability Law Service (DLS) may be able to help you with a discrimination issue If you are phoning about an issue which falls within their areas of law, including:

Goods and Services (Disability Discrimination and Multiple Sclerosis enquiries).

Discrimination Employment.

Website: https://www.dls.org.uk

Enforcing your rights

If you have a complaint under the employment provisions of the DDA you can seek redress through an Employment Tribunal. A complaint must be lodged within 3 months of the discriminatory act. A questionnaire procedure will help assist you in determining whether you have a strong case. You can ask ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) for help. In Northern Ireland, the relevant body is the labour Relations Agency. If you are a trade union member you should seek assistance from your union.

Rights under the goods and services provisions of the Act are enforceable through the Count Court ( the Sheriff Court in Scotland). A complaint must be lodged within 6 months of the discriminatory act. You can make a complaint to the Pensions Ombudsman if you think that the managers of a pension scheme have discriminated against you.

Under the Act it is unlawful to victimise you if you try to enforce your rights. Anyone who helps you make a complaint about discrimination is also protected, this includes people who provide information or give evidence for you in a court or tribunal. The Act also makes it unlawful for a person to knowingly help another person to discriminate against you.

The Employment Tribunal can make such orders as it considers just and equitable These include a declaration of the rights of the parties, compensation for foreseeable damages arising directly from the unlawful act of discrimination, damages for injury to feelings and a recommendation that within a specified period of time the respondent takes reasonable action to remove or reduce the adverse effects on the complainant of any matter to which the complaint relates. In the County Court, injunctive relief is also available.

If you are successful in a Tribunal or Court you can obtain damages for financial loss or hurt feelings. Courts can also impose injunctions on the service provider.

The DDA provides for limits to be prescribed as to the maximum amount of damages that can be awarded as compensation for injury to feelings under Part 3 (non-employment cases).

More information

Equality Advisory Support Service

The Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) is an advice service aimed at individuals who need expert information, advice and support on discrimination and human rights issues and the applicable law, particularly when this is more than advice agencies and other local organisations can provide.

The EASS was commissioned by Government in 2012 to replace the EHRC Helpline, which is now closed. The EHRC is no longer able to respond to individual enquiries as the EASS has taken over this role. Information about the decision to close the Helpline is available on the Government Equalities Office website.

The EASS can:

  • Give bespoke advice to individuals across the whole of Great Britain on discrimination issues
  • Explain legal rights and remedies within discrimination legislation, across the three nations
  • Explain options for informal resolution and help people to pursue them
  • Refer people who cannot or do not wish to go down this road to conciliation or mediation services
  • Help people who need or want to seek a legal solution by helping to establish eligibility for legal aid and, if they are not eligible, to find an accessible legal service or to prepare and lodge a claim themselves

Butit cannot:

  • Provide legal advice
  • Provide representation in any legal proceedings
  • Provide advice on court or tribunal procedures once a claim has been issued
  • Advise on the strength of a case or the evidence needed to prove a case
  • Provide advice to employers
  • Provide advice to solicitors and other professional advisors

Website: https://www.equalityadvisoryservice.com/

Information about Transport provisions of the Act can be obtained from:

Department For Transport
33 Horseferry Road
Helpline: 0300 330 3000


You may find help with a discrimination problem at your nearest law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau.

Local authorities may find publications produced by the Local Government Information Unit helpful:
Contact details:
For general enquiries call 020 7554 2800 or email info@lgiu.org.uk.
22 Upper Woburn Place
London WC1H 0TB
Telephone: 020 7554 2800