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Disability discrimination

A general guide on how you are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act and what your rights are.

What is a disability?

You have to show that your mental health problem is a disability to get the protection of the Equality Act.

'Disability' has a special legal meaning under the Equality Act. It's broader than the usual way you might understand the word.

The Equality Act says you have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Unless an impairment is minor or trivial, it should be considered substantial.

If you take medication and the side-effects impact your ability to carry normal day-to-day activities, this can also fit the definition of a disability. The medication could be for any problem, not just a mental health problem.

Even if you don't think you have a disability, the Equality Act may protect you from discrimination if your mental health problem fits its definition of disability. 

The focus is on the effect of your mental health problem, rather than the diagnosis. So you need to show that all of the following apply. Your mental health problem:

  • Has more than a small effect on your everyday life
  • Makes things more difficult for you
  • Has lasted at least 12 months, or is likely to last 12 months. Or, if your mental health problem has improved, that it is likely to recur

Example of 'substantial adverse effect'

Simon has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He has to check and recheck whether lights are switched off and doors are locked. This can make him late for work or other appointments. His obsessive thoughts often distract him from activities that he is doing and disrupt his daily routines. His mental health problem therefore has a substantial adverse effect on the way he does things.

Examples of 'long term'

  • Jenny has had depression for 10 months. The doctor says it will be likely to last at least another 4 to 5 months.
  • Selina has bipolar disorder. She had her first and second episode in January 2019, then a third episode in January 2020. For the 12 months between episodes Selina still faced challenges with bipolar disorder. So even though there was a gap between her second and third episode, her mental health problem is considered to have continued over the whole period of 13 months. Selina's doctor says it is likely she will have another episode in the future.

What if I'm getting medication or treatment for my mental health problem?

If you're getting treatment or taking medication for your mental health problem, you ignore the effect of this when deciding whether your condition is having a substantial, adverse effect on your daily activities. This means the law is looking at how your condition affects you without your treatment or medication.

Example of substantial adverse effect ignoring treatment

Mohammed has long-term anxiety and is being treated by counselling. Anxiety would normally make him find simple tasks difficult. Because he has counselling, he is able to do day-to-day activities like going out shopping and preparing meals.

The Equality Act says you have to ignore his treatment in deciding whether his mental health problem has a substantial adverse effect on his day-to-day activities. So he has a disability.

What if I had a disability in the past?

You are still protected from discrimination if you had a disability in the past. That means that if your past mental health problem had a substantial, long-term and adverse effect, you will get the protection of the Equality Act.

Example of past disability

Four years ago, Mary had depression that lasted 2 years. It had a substantial effect on her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. She has not experienced depression since then.

If Mary is treated worse by her employer because of her past mental health problem, she will be protected by the Equality Act.

Checklist: Is my mental health problem a disability?

You can ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I have a mental health problem?
  2. Is it long-term? This means it has lasted more than 12 months, or is likely to do so.
  3. Does it have a more than a minor adverse effect on my day-to-day living? Or would it do this if I didn't have my treatment or medication?

If you answered 'yes' to all three questions, then your mental health problem could by protected by the Equality Act

If you also have a physical health problem which meets these conditions, the Equality Act may protect you from discrimination relating to it.

It is up to the courts to decide. They will look at each case individually, using the evidence available. 

If you want to get the protection of the Equality Act, it can help to get some evidence from your GP or another medical professional. You can ask them to write a letter saying whether they think you have a disability under the Equality Act. It will help if they can give their opinion on the answer to each of the three questions above.

Example of protection by the Equality Act

Esra doesn't consider herself disabled. This is because she doesn't receive disability benefits and she is physically healthy.

Esra has been living with an anxiety disorder for the past 3 years. Because of this, it takes her a longer time to do things like get up in the morning, dress herself for the day and do the shopping. She takes medication to control the symptoms.

Esra would be protected by the Equality Act if she can show that:

  • She has a mental impairment – an anxiety disorder
  • It is long term – she has had it for the past 3 years
  • It has a substantial effect on her daily life – her mental health has a major effect on her daily life when you ignore the effect of her medication  
  • It has an adverse effect – her mental health problem makes things more difficult for her

This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026. 

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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