What disability means by law

Considering whether someone has a disability

In some cases it may not be obvious whether someone is considered to have a disability by law. 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.

It's important for the employer and the person with the condition or impairment to talk to each other. Do not make any assumptions.

Things to consider

It's important to understand that:

  • most disabled people were not born with their disability
  • anyone could become disabled at any stage of their working life
  • some disabilities are not obvious to others – often called non-visible, invisible or hidden disabilities
  • not everyone who's protected by discrimination law (Equality Act 2010) will consider themselves to be disabled

For someone to be classed as having a disability, it does not matter:

  • whether the impairment is physical or mental
  • what caused the impairment
  • if the impairment does not affect them all the time or it changes at different times
  • if they have not had a medical diagnosis – as long as they can still show a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities

The law says to discount the effects of any medication, aids or treatment when considering whether someone has a disability. The exception to this is wearing glasses or contact lenses.

If an employer does not agree someone has a disability

If an employer feels that someone's condition or impairment does not meet the definition of a disability, they should:

  • not make assumptions
  • listen to the person when they talk about the effect it has on their normal day-to-day activities – this may include what would happen if they stopped any medication or treatment
  • consider any medical advice, for example an occupational health report or a medical report from the staff member's doctor – employers must get permission from the staff member to access these
  • focus on supporting the person – this could include making reasonable adjustments

Find out more about talking about disability at work

Examples of when someone might have a disability

Example 1

Chris and Sasha both have asthma.

Chris has had severe asthma for a few years. It has a significant impact on their day-to-day activities. It's likely that Chris has a disability.

Sasha's asthma is mild and it does not affect how they carry out day-to-day activities. It's likely that Sasha does not have a disability.

Example 2

Val has breathing difficulties that affect their energy, sleep and ability to move around. Each of those things on their own does not have a substantial adverse effect for Val. But considered together, they significantly affect Val's ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. It's likely that Val has a disability.

Example 3

Eli has prostate cancer. The cancer is at an early stage and it is not having any effect on day-to-day activities. Eli is still protected by discrimination law because cancer is automatically classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

Example 4

Ari has been struggling with day-to-day tasks since a close friend died a year ago. They are often not able to do things like getting dressed, cooking and talking to people.

Ari has not been diagnosed with a medical condition like depression but they are showing signs of having a mental impairment. This could mean that Ari has a disability if they can show it's having a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

This is an example of where an employer might reasonably be expected to recognise that Ari is likely to have a disability.

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