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The law

The information on this site is presented in plain English. Links are provided to sites containing legal definitions and should be referred to for accuracy and completeness.

What counts as a disability in law?

Disability is not always obvious. The Equality Act 2010 defines a person as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The key thing is not the impairment but its effect. Some people don’t realise that impairments such as migraines, dyslexia, asthma and back pain can count as a disability if the adverse effect on the individual is substantial and long-term. Some conditions automatically count as disabilities for the purposes of The Equality Act 2010, from the point of first diagnosis - these are cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Your local Jobcentre Plus or the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) can tell you more. The EHRC has advice on what counts as a disability according to the law.

Treating disabled people fairly: Avoiding discrimination

It is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability (eg a tendency to make spelling mistakes arising from dyslexia). This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer or other person acting for the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability. More information on disability discrimination is available from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) website.

Disability equality in the public sector

Public authorities and public, private or voluntary organisations carrying out public functions have a new Equality Duty. In summary, those subject to the duty must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to the need to:

The EHRC website provides more information on the public sector equality duty

Making reasonable adjustments

Employers are required to make 'reasonable adjustments' to jobs and workplaces for disabled workers. This is to ensure disabled people have equal opportunities in applying for and staying in work. Workplace adjustments may also be made on a temporary basis.

Reasonable adjustments may include:

  • adjustments to the workplace to improve access or layout;
  • giving some of the disabled person’s duties to another person, eg employing a temp;
  • transferring the disabled person to fill a vacancy;
  • changing the working hours, eg flexi-time, job-share, starting later or finishing earlier;
  • time off, eg for treatment, assessment, rehabilitation;
  • training for disabled workers and their colleagues;
  • getting new or adapting existing equipment, eg chairs, desks, computers, vehicles;
  • modifying instructions or procedures, eg by providing written material in bigger text or in Braille;
  • improving communication, eg providing a reader or interpreter, having visual as well as audible alarms;
  • providing alternative work (this should usually be a last resort).

Confidentiality and data protection

Revealing a disability

If a disabled person expects an employer to make a reasonable adjustment, they will need to provide the employer with enough information to carry out that adjustment. Disabled people have a right to confidentiality and an employer must not disclose confidential details about them without their explicit consent.

Data protection

The Data Protection Act 1998 places duties on employers to ensure confidential and appropriate handling of ‘sensitive personal data’, which includes data about a person’s health.

The Data Protection Act also gives individuals the right to see personal data and information held or processed about them, provided they request it in writing. This provision is important in accessing personal information relating to a risk assessment.

Who has health and safety responsibilities?

Health and safety laws place duties on everyone concerned with work activities.

Updated 2014-06-25