Disability discrimination at work

How and when disability discrimination can happen

Disabled people can face discrimination and harassment every day, inside and outside of work.

It can happen in any aspect of work. Common situations include when decisions are made around:

  • accessibility of the workplace or the tools and systems people need to use
  • ways of working, for example flexible working or hybrid working
  • recruitment
  • redundancy and dismissals
  • sickness and absence
  • terms and conditions of employment, including pay and promotion
  • training
  • working hours or rest breaks
  • work-related events – for example team-building or away days, conferences or team social events

It's against the law (Equality Act 2010) to discriminate against someone because:

  • they have a condition or impairment considered a disability by law
  • it's believed they have a disability even if that's not true
  • they know someone who's disabled, for example a family member, friend or colleague
  • they have another connection with disability, for example they volunteer for a disability charity
  • they had a disability in the past

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How it can happen

Discrimination and harassment can happen in different ways. For example it might:

  • be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident
  • happen in the workplace, at work social events or when people are working remotely
  • happen face to face, on social media, in emails or phone calls
  • be spoken or written words, imagery, graffiti, gestures, jokes, pranks or unwanted physical behaviour
  • not always be obvious or noticed by others
  • not always be someone's intention to discriminate or cause offence

Who someone can experience it from

Someone could experience disability discrimination or harassment from anyone they come into contact with because of their job, including:

  • someone they work with
  • a manager, supervisor or someone else in a position of authority
  • someone who is less senior than them, for example a manager being bullied or harassed by their staff – this can be called 'upward bullying' or 'subordinate bullying'

Someone could also experience disability discrimination or harassment from a customer, client or member of the public. An employer should take steps to prevent this.

Discrimination is often directed at an individual, but it's not always the case. Sometimes there can be a workplace culture that's not specifically aimed at one person – for example making offensive comments about disabled people.

When disability discrimination may not be obvious

Sometimes discrimination or harassment is very obvious, for example:

  • telling someone you will not give them a promotion because they're disabled
  • dismissing someone because they have a disabled child
  • making fun of or mocking someone's disability

Other things are not always obvious and may not be noticed by other people. This can include:

  • unconscious bias – when someone's thoughts or decisions are influenced by beliefs or assumptions that may not be right or reasonable
  • stereotyping people – having a fixed view about what someone's like or what they can do based on their disability
  • microaggressions – small comments, questions or behaviours that are offensive or inappropriate, sometimes without the person who's doing it realising

Examples of stereotyping and microaggressions

Common examples include:

  • helping someone when they have not asked for help – this suggests thinking the person is not capable of doing it on their own
  • being surprised when someone talks about their partner, children or hobbies – this suggests thinking someone who's disabled is somehow not able to live a 'normal' life
  • telling someone not to use the accessible toilet because they do not look disabled – not all disabilities are obvious
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