What disability means by law

Disability and the Equality Act 2010

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The Equality Act 2010 sets out when someone is considered to have a disability and is protected from disability discrimination.

What's automatically classed as a disability

People with these conditions and impairments are automatically protected under disability discrimination law:

  • cancer
  • an HIV infection
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • a visual impairment – if someone is certified as blind, severely sight impaired, sight impaired or partially sighted

Progressive conditions

A progressive condition gets worse over time. Examples include Alzheimer's disease, motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's.

Someone with a progressive condition is considered by law to have a disability as soon as it starts to have an effect on their normal day-to-day activities, as long as this is likely to be long-term. The law says the effect does not have to be substantial as long as it's likely to become substantial in the future.

The main definition of disability

Unless their condition or impairment is automatically classed as a disability or they have a progressive condition, the Equality Act 2010 says someone is considered to have a disability if both of these apply:

  • 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'

What these terms mean

Someone has an 'impairment' if any of their physical or mental abilities are reduced in some way. It could be because of an illness or medical condition but it does not have to be.

A 'substantial adverse effect' means more than just a minor impact on someone's life or how they can do certain things. This may fluctuate or change and may not happen all the time.

'Long-term' means either:

  • it will affect them or is likely to affect them for at least a year
  • it's likely to last for the rest of their life

It can still be considered long-term if the effects are likely to come and go. For example, someone might have a fluctuating condition that affects them for a few months at a time with other times when they're not affected.

'Normal day-to-day activities' could include things like:

  • communicating with other people
  • driving
  • following instructions
  • lifting and carrying everyday objects
  • sitting down or standing up
  • using a computer
  • writing

For more detailed guidance on the definition of disability, see Equality Act 2010 guidance on GOV.UK.

Other conditions or impairments

It's not possible to give an exhaustive list of all conditions or impairments that might be classed as a disability. In most situations, it's best to look at how someone's condition or impairment affects them, rather than what the condition or impairment is.

However, these are some examples people often ask about.

Disfigurement

Severe disfigurement will usually be considered by law to have a substantial adverse effect on someone's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This means that severe disfigurement is usually considered to be a disability.

The law says that there is no need for someone with a severe disfigurement to show the effect their disfigurement has on them.

Other less severe disfigurements to someone's face or body may not have a substantial effect on someone's day-to-day activities so may not be considered a disability.

Long COVID

Long COVID is still a new illness and it may take time to understand it fully. It can affect a person's day-to-day activities and it's currently understood that it can last or come and go for several months. The effects of long COVID could also cause other impairments.

Find out more about whether long COVID is treated as a disability

Menopause

For some people, the menopause can cause severe physical or mental health symptoms that have a long-term and substantial adverse effect on carrying out normal day-to-day activities.

For example, someone could experience severe depression over a number of years because of the menopause and this could affect their ability to work. This could be considered a disability under discrimination law.

Find out more about the menopause and work

Neurodiversity including ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia are forms of neurodivergence – there are others too.

Being neurodivergent will usually amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, even if the person does not consider themselves to be disabled.

Find out more about neurodiversity at work

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Please do not include any personal information, for example email address or phone number. Unfortunately we cannot respond to individual requests for information. If you need help, contact our helpline on 0300 123 1100