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Disability discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against workers because of a mental or physical disability, or to fail to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate a worker with a disability.

View or download the Acas guide pdf  Equality and Discrimination: understand the basics [415kb].

Key points

  • Under the Equality Act 2010 a person is classified as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Day-to-day activities include things such as using a telephone, reading a book or using public transport.
  • The Equality Act 2010 provides disabled people with protection from discrimination in a range of areas, including employment.

There are four main types of discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Is when someone is treated differently and not as well as other people because of their disability. For example if an employer does not employ a disabled person as they just don't want disabled people in the workplace. It breaks down into three different sorts of direct discrimination or treating someone 'less favourably' because of:

  • their own disability (direct discrimination)
  • a perceived disability (direct discrimination by perception)
  • their association with someone who is disabled (direct discrimination by association).

Indirect discrimination

Can occur where a workplace rule, practice or procedure is applied to all workers, but disadvantages people who are disabled. In some limited circumstances, indirect discrimination may be justified if it is necessary for the business to work. For example an employer may reject someone who has a severe back problem where the job entails heavy lifting.


When unwanted conduct related to a person's disability causes a distressing,  humiliating or offensive environment for that person.


Treating an employee unfairly because they have made or supported a complaint about disability discrimination.

Employers should ensure they have rules 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.

If an employee has a disability that is making it difficult to work, employers should look to see what reasonable adjustments they can make in the workplace to help them, or have a meeting with the employee to discuss what can be done to help them. This could be as simple as supplying a special chair or power-assisted piece of equipment. Reasonable adjustments might also include moving the person to a different job doing a different type of work, if necessary.

European Court of Justice ruling on whether obesity can constitute a disability (FOA v Kommunernes Landsforening)

The court ruled that while the condition of obesity would not in itself constitute a disability, where the condition leads to a long-term impairment which could have an effect on their ability to interact with professional life, a person may be protected by disability legislation.

The Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal in (Bickerstaff v Butcher) decided that the claimant was disabled as a result of his obesity and upheld his claim of harassment. This was the first case in the UK Employment Tribunals.

In the case Mr Bickerstaff claimed Mr Butcher harassed him on a daily basis about his weight, making a number of comments. The Tribunal showed that Mr Bickerstaff had health problems linked to his weight, and held that his obesity constituted a disability.

Making a claim for discrimination if you're disabled

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.

Claimants who wish to bring a claim to the tribunal or appeal tribunal will have to pay a fee. The first fee will be paid to issue a claim and a further fee will be payable if the claim goes to hearing. There are two levels of fee which will depend on the type of claim. Further information is available from Ministry of Justice - Employment Tribunal guidance.

Through the Acas Helpline you can get advice on specific problems, and explore alternatives to an Employment Tribunal claim, such as Mediation, where appropriate.

Protected characteristics video

This video introduces and explains the nine protected characteristics.

Acas training - did you know?

Acas run practical Training and Business Solutions to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplace environments.

Click to view related Acas training and course dates in your area for Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010.

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