A general guide on how you are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act and what your rights are.
What are the different types of discrimination?
The Equality Act protects people who have a disability against these types of discrimination:
- Direct discrimination
- Discrimination arising from disability
- Indirect discrimination
- Failing to comply with duty to make reasonable adjustments
It's possible that you've experienced discrimination in more than one way. If this is the case, you can claim for multiple types of discrimination in one claim.
Direct discrimination is when you are treated worse than someone else because you have a disability.
You have to show that there's a link between your disability and the way you've been treated. This can be difficult. But you don't always have to give an example of a specific non-disabled person who was treated better than you. It just needs to be clear from all the circumstances that your disability was the reason why you were treated as you were.
Discrimination by association: you may be treated worse because of your connection or association with another person with a disability. This applies even if you don't have a disability yourself.
Discrimination by perception: you can also be treated worse because a person or organisation believes you do have a disability when you don't.
Examples of direct discrimination
- Jon isn't offered a promotion because he has depression. But his colleague Harry, who doesn't have depression, is offered a promotion – even though he has less experience and fewer qualifications.
- Lena phones a holiday company to book a holiday cottage for the first week in June. They say it is available to let. She explains she has borderline personality disorder. The company then says that she cannot rent the cottage. On the same day her friend Zelda, who does not have any mental health problems, phones the same company. Zelda is allowed to book the cottage for the first week in June. The holiday company has refused a service to Lena because of her mental health problem. This is direct discrimination.
- Sylvie is a solicitor who represents people with mental health problems. She goes to a café. The café owner tells her that he does not want her using his café because she acts for people with mental health problems. This is discrimination by association.
- A bank wrongly assumed that David had a long-term mental health problem. They refuse him a loan for this reason, even though he has no mental health problem. This is discrimination by perception.
This is where you are treated badly because of something that happens due to your disability.
Unlike direct discrimination, there's no need for you to compare yourself with anyone else. You just have to show that you were treated badly. And this treatment was linked to your disability.
You don't need to show that the person who treated you badly was aware that the behaviour was due to your disability. But they do need to be aware that you have a disability.
Example of discrimination arising from disability
- Nigel is the tenant of a housing association. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Because of this, he walks around his flat a lot. This disturbs his neighbour. His tenancy officer at the housing association sends him a warning letter. It tells him that he will be taken to court if he continues to disturb his neighbour. This may be discrimination arising from disability.
Situations when unfavourable treatment might not be discrimination
There are some situations in which it might be lawful for a person or organisation to treat you unfavourably. These are if they can show at least one of the following:
- There were valid intentions behind their action. For example, 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'.
- They did not know you had a disability and could not reasonably have known.
A service provider can be held responsible for the actions of its staff or agents. For example, a waiter in a restaurant or a receptionist at the local authority.
But the service provider may be protected if they took all reasonable steps to avoid the discriminatory act. Or if their employee or agent was acting outside the scope of what they were told to do.
Example when unfavourable treatment might not be discrimination
Peter experiences psychosis and hears voices, which he manages by talking to them. A member of staff in a shop asks Peter to leave when he is talking to his voices. Peter has been treated unfavourably because of behaviour related to his disability.
Normally the company running the shop would be held responsible for the actions of its employee. But the company has issued clear instructions to staff about their obligations under equality law. And it's provided equality training. It also regularly checks that staff are following the law. It may be able to argue that it's taken all reasonable steps to prevent its staff from acting in a discriminatory way. The member of staff who asked Peter to leave wasn't acting in the way he'd been told to.
Indirect discrimination is where a person or organisation has practices or arrangements that seem to treat everyone in an equal, non-discriminatory way. But these practices or arrangements put you and others with your disability at a disadvantage compared with those who do not have your disability.
Examples of indirect discrimination
An advice centre will only provide advice to people who visit the centre and will not offer advice by phone or email. This practice puts people with mental health problems like agoraphobia at a disadvantage because they can't leave their homes to travel to the centre.
An outdoor centre provides a variety of activities from walks on gravelled areas to strenuous physical activities. Its policy says it will only let people do the activities if they have a medical certificate of good health.
Ensuring health and safety is reasonable. But applying a policy like this to every activity is likely to be indirect discrimination. This is because customers who have mental health problems would not be able to join any activities. So they'd be treated worse than other customers.
People with mental health problems might be capable of doing any of the activities on offer. Their mental health conditions would not affect their ability to exercise. Or they could take up the less strenuous activities.
But it will not be indirect discrimination if the outdoor centre is able to justify this policy by showing that it is both:
- For a good reason
- Appropriate and necessary
For indirect discrimination, it doesn't matter whether the person or organisation knew about your disability. This means they have to plan in advance and think about how their policies and practices may affect people with mental health problems.
But it is not indirect discrimination if the person or organisation can show these practices and arrangements were justified.
Hate crime is when you're the victim of an incident where you were targeted because of your race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. It can be quite hard to work out when something is hate crime rather than harassment. Or when it's both harassment and hate crime.
Hate crimes are criminal offences and people who commit them can be prosecuted. There is more information about hate crime and ways to find support on the True Vision website.
Examples of harassment
- Mary has an eating disorder. Mary's tutor at university knows she has an eating disorder. She makes offensive remarks in front of other students about people with anorexia.
- Steve has schizoaffective disorder. He is on a day out from inpatient treatment in a psychiatric hospital and is eating with fellow patients at a local café. A member of staff who knows he is a psychiatric patient uses silent gestures and mime to make fun of him.
Examples of victimisation
- Sarah makes a complaint that her GP's receptionist has discriminated against her because of her mental health problem. As a result, her GP's practice manager tells her she must leave the practice and register with another practice. This is likely to be victimisation.
- Deb has an anxiety disorder. She genuinely believes that she has been discriminated against by an assistant in her local supermarket. The assistant made remarks about her condition in front of customers. Her friend Chris helps her to complain to the supermarket. After this, the manager says both of them should shop elsewhere.
The Equality Act says that employers and service providers should think about making reasonable adjustments.
If a person or organisation does not make reasonable adjustments when it would have been reasonable to do, this will be unlawful discrimination.
See our page on reasonable adjustments to learn more.
'Disability' has a special legal meaning under the Equality Act, which is broader than the usual way you might understand the word. 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.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
There are many situations in which you may feel treated unfairly because of your disability, but the law only covers these types of discrimination:
- direct discrimination
- discrimination arising from disability
- indirect discrimination
- not complying with the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
In the UK, law that protects you from discrimination is called the Equality Act.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
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
- 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.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
When someone is treated worse because of their physical or mental health condition, this is known as 'disability discrimination'.
The Equality Act is the law that explains what a disability is, and when worse treatment counts as discrimination.
Generally, you have to show that you have a disability before you can challenge worse treatment as disability discrimination. The exceptions to this are if you received worse treatment because your employer thinks you're disabled but you're not, or because of your association with a disabled person.
See our pages on disability discrimination for more information.Visit our full listing of Legal Terms
This information was published in October 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.