Disability discrimination

Disability discrimination: an introduction

Disabled workers are often discriminated against. UNISON plays an important role in organising and bargaining for a fair deal for members with disabilities. People with disabilities make up 20% of the workforce and around 10 million people in Britain have a disability or long-term health condition.

Equality Act 2010 / Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA)

In Great Britain, the 2010 Equality Act protects the rights of disabled people in the workplace while in Northern Ireland similar rights are enshrined in the DDA – as well as providing some protection to people associated with disabled people, such as carers. The Act covers anyone with a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

It also includes those who have been disabled in the past. People with cancer, HIV or multiple sclerosis are automatically regarded as disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act and the DDA. A severe disfigurement may also amount to a disability.

As well as disability discrimination, the 2010 Act protects people from other forms of discrimination, including:

  • age;
  • gender reassignment;
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion and belief;
  • sex;
  • sexual orientation.

In Northern Ireland, separate pieces of legislation address these issues and political opinion discrimination. Under the Act, and the Northern Ireland equivalents, people are not allowed to discriminate against, harass or victimise another person just because they fall into any of these categories.

People are not allowed to discriminate against disabled people because of their particular disability, or because of something arising in consequence of their disability (unless, in Great Britain, their employer can show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim).

In Northern Ireland people are not allowed to discriminate against disabled people because of their particular disability, or for disability related reasons. In relation to treating someone less favourably for disability related reasons, an employer can defend their actions if they can show more than a minor or trivial reason for such treatment that relates to the circumstances of a particular case.

Practices which discriminate against those with particular disabilities are also prohibited unless they can be similarly justified. This is known as indirect disability discrimination – there is no Northern Ireland equivalent under the DDA.

In the workplace, this means treating people equally in all aspects of their work, including:

  • when they apply for a job;
  • terms and conditions;
  • pay and benefits;
  • training, development, promotion and appraisals;
  • dismissal, redundancy and retirement.

Employers are also expected to make special arrangements – described as ’reasonable adjustments’ in the law – that help people with disabilities do their jobs properly. These ‘adjustments’ could cover changes to the job itself or providing equipment that makes the job easier to do.

There is no definitive list of these ‘reasonable adjustments’. The best way to bring about the changes you need is to make an informal agreement with your employer. Your UNISON representative is there to support you if you need help.

Social model of disability

UNISON supports the social model of disability. This means we believe it is the way society organises itself and people’s attitudes that stop disabled people from taking an equal part in life, rather than their physical or mental conditions or ailments. As a union we campaign on important issues such as:

  • inaccessible workplaces;
  • information systems that are not designed for disabled people;
  • negative attitudes and prejudice from employers.

UNISON’s work on disability discrimination is often led by our disabled members.

Next steps for UNISON reps

Make sure you’re familiar with the terms of the 2010 Equality Act and, in Northern Ireland, the DDA.

Key facts
  • Around 20% of the workforce is disabled and disabled people are often discriminated against at work.
  • The 2010 Equality Act provides protection against discrimination throughout your working life, from recruitment to retirement.
  • UNISON is committed to reducing discrimination of all types in the workplace.


Disability discrimination

  • Is it reasonable to expect my employer to try to find me a new job if my disability makes it hard for me to do my existing job?

    Yes, your employer is bound by law to consider redeployment if there are no “reasonable adjustments” that can be made to your existing job.

  • What rights do carers have under the law?

    Under the 2010 Equality Act and the DDA, carers enjoy some of the same rights as the people they care for. Carers have the right not to suffer less favourable treatment or be harassed because of another’s disability. However, there is no duty to make reasonable adjustments for carers and nor do they have protection against indirect discrimination.