Disability discrimination

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

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Terms you need to know


Term Meaning
Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

ACAS is an organisation that provides information, advice, training, conciliation and other services for employers and employees to help prevent or resolve workplace problems.

ACAS offers a free Early Conciliation service. If you want to take a disability discrimination challenge against your employer at the Employment Tribunal, you have to contact ACAS first and you need proof that you have done so before you can start a claim.


An advocate is a person who can both listen to you and speak for you in times of need. Having an advocate can be helpful in situations where you are finding it difficult to make your views known, or to make people listen to them and take them into account. Find out more on our advocacy information page.

County court

This is a court which deals with civil (non–criminal) matters.  There are fees for starting a claim in the county court. But if you have a low income, you may be able to pay a reduced amount, or none at all (called a ‘fee remission’).

Cases in the county court are in one of three tracks:

  • small claims track is where the amount of compensation you are asking for is less than £10,000 and your case is not complicated
  • fast track is where your case is more complicated but can be finished in a 1-day hearing
  • multi-track is where the claim is complicated, and/or will take longer than a 1-day hearing, and/or is for a larger sum of money

Fast track and multi-track cases are costly and if you do not win your case, you usually have to pay the other person’s legal costs.


The Equality Act says that you have a disability if you have an impairment that is either physical or mental and the impairment has a substantial, adverse and long term effect on your normal daily activities.

Disability discrimination

This is when someone is treated worse because of their physical or mental health condition. The Equality Act explains:

  • what a disability is, and
  • when worse treatment is discrimination
You have to show that you have a disability before you can challenge worse treatment as disability discrimination.

There are many situations in which you may feel treated unfairly because of your disability, but the Equality Act only covers these types of discrimination:

  • direct discrimination
  • discrimination arising from disability
  • indirect discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation
  • the duty to make reasonable adjustments
Employment Tribunal

The Employment Tribunal decides disputes between employers and employees about employment rights. An Employment Tribunal is like a court but not always so formal.

Equality Act 2010

This is the law that explains:

  • what behaviour counts as unlawful discrimination
  • who has a right to challenge discrimination
Judicial review

This is a type of court procedure where a judge reviews a public authority’s decision, policy, practice, act or failure to act, and decides whether it is lawful or not.

If it is not lawful, the court may cancel the decision or action (‘quash’ it), and require the public authority to reconsider it, lawfully. The court can order the authority to do or not do something.


It might be lawful for a person or organisation to treat you unfavourably if they can show that:

  • there were valid intentions behind their action (such as ensuring the health and safety of others, or keeping up staff attendance so that their business can run properly), and
  • that it was an appropriate action to take in the circumstance. 

Legally this is called a 'justification'.

Whoever is deciding whether or not unfavourable treatment is justified needs to balance the needs of both sides carefully, which can be very complicated.

Occupational health

The job of an occupational health professional is to assess you to find out:

  • how your work impacts your health
  • if you are fit for the work you do
  • what adjustments may need to be made to support you at work

Your employer can refer you to occupational health if you have a physical or mental health problem that is affecting your work or causing you to take time off sick, particularly if this is more than 2 or 3 weeks at once.

If you disagree with their assessment, it is important to seek advice.

Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)

This is the independent organisation that reviews individual complaints by students against universities. You have to try to sort out your discrimination complaint using the complaints procedure of the university before you can contact OIA.

Prohibited conduct

Prohibited conduct is the special term used in the Equality Act to cover behaviour that counts as unlawful. It covers discrimination, harassment, failure to make reasonable adjustments and victimisation.

Protected characteristics

'Protected characteristics' is the name for the nine personal characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act in certain situations. They are:

  • age
  • disability (this can include mental health problems)
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
Public authorities

These are organisations whose role is of a public nature. This includes:

  • Police
  • NHS hospitals and employees
  • Local authorities and their employees
  • Some nursing and personal care accommodation providers
  • Prison staff
  • Courts and tribunals, including Mental Health Tribunals
  • Government departments and their employees
  • Statutory bodies and their employees (for example the Information Commissioner’s Office)

Public functions

This means an act or activity taken by a public authority which is not a service. A public authority carries out a public function when it performs its particular legal duties and powers. Examples of public functions are licensing, planning and enforcement of parking.

Public authorities can get private companies or voluntary organisations to carry out their public functions. So for example, a private company that runs prisons and takes prisoners into custody would be considered a private company carrying out a public function.

Public sector equality duty

This is the legal duty which public authorities like councils, NHS hospitals and government departments have to follow. It means they have to consider how their policies and practices affect people with protected characteristics, like people with mental health problems.

Private or voluntary organisations also have to follow the public sector equality duty when they carry out a public function on behalf of public authorities. For example, a private firm that is employed by a local council to collect council tax arrears needs to follow the public sector equality duty.

Reasonable adjustments

These are changes that:

  • employers
  • organisations and people providing services and public functions
  • education providers like universities and colleges
  • managers of properties like landlords
  • clubs and associations

should make for you if you are at a major disadvantage because of your mental health problems and it is reasonable.

Examples of reasonable adjustments include:

  • making changes to the way things are organised or done   
  • making changes to the built environment, or physical features like steps or doorways around you
  • providing aids and services for you
Service provider

This is an organisation or person that provides services to the public or a section of the public for payment or for free. It includes private companies, voluntary organisations and public authorities.


This information was published in August 2019. We will revise it in 2021.

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