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Rights and protection from disability discrimination

If you experience unfair treatment (discrimination) because of your illness or another disability, you’re protected under the Equality Act 2010. In Northern Ireland your rights are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

On this page:

What protection is there and who is covered?

The Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act make it unlawful to discriminate against people because of a disability as well as on other grounds and in connection with (among other things):

  • employment
  • education
  • transport
  • housing
  • buying goods and services

In practice, however, it can be difficult and complicated to get your rights enforced. Legally, a lot depends on whether someone’s behaviour towards you is judged to be reasonable or unreasonable and whether they knew about your illness or disability. This is a matter of fact (not a point of law) and it’s ultimately up to the judges in court to decide. Practically, you may also have problems proving what’s happened, however unreasonable it was.

This page has information about what help is available and how strong your case is if you think you have been discriminated against.

How is disability defined?

A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse impact on your ability to carry out daily activities.

Substantial means more than minor or trivial. An illness can count as substantial if someone has an illness that:

  • will get worse over time, and as soon as it has any impact (as long as that impact is likely to become substantial)
  • is likely to recur
  • has effects that are being helped by treatment

Long term normally means 12 months or more. For people living with a terminal illness, it means likely to last for the rest of their life if that is less than 12 months. Some conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV infection count as a disability from the date of diagnosis.

What is prohibited conduct?

There are four main types of behaviour in relation to disability that are unlawful under the Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act :

  • Direct discrimination is where someone treats someone else less favourably specifically because of their disability (actual or perceived) or the disability of someone associated with them.
  • Indirect discrimination is where a group of people are treated in the same way, but in a way that is more likely to negatively affect only particular people within that group, due to their disability.
  • Harassment is where someone gives another person unwanted attention because of that person's disability with the intention or effect of violating that person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.
  • Victimisation is where someone is treated unfairly because they’ve made a complaint. For example, they have made a complaint about being discriminated against under Equality Act.

Treatment of carers

While being a carer isn't in itself protected by the law from discrimination, there is protection if someone suffers from discrimination because of the disability of the person they are caring for. This means that a carer may bring a disability claim for disability by association, as long as they can show that the disability of the person they are caring for is the reason why they, the carer, are being unfavourably treated.

Employment rights

It’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you because of your, or an associated person's, disability. Read more about your rights at work .

Access to goods and services

You’re protected against direct discrimination and harassment when buying goods or using services. This includes buying things in shops and using services such as cinemas, pubs, sports grounds, schools, social services or hospitals.

Direct discrimination when you’re buying goods or using services could include someone providing you with a worse service than someone who isn’t disabled. Harassment could include sales people talking down to you or acting in a frightening or threatening way towards you.

If this happens, you can complain to the service provider or business using its complaints procedure, if it has one. If you’re not satisfied, you can complain to a regulatory body that deals with that service. For example, the Care Quality Commission   regulates health and care services in England. If this still doesn’t resolve it, you can take legal action in the courts. This must usually happen within three months of the date of the discrimination. See below for helpful organisations to contact before doing this.


When you use buses, taxis, trains, car hire and breakdown services, you’re protected against unfair treatment. But this doesn’t cover changes to the transport itself (which is why many rail stations, for example, are still inaccessible) or ships. For air travel see the guide below.


In many cases it’s unlawful for anyone letting, selling or managing rented property (namely, houses, flats or offices) to discriminate against disabled people. Harassment of disabled people is also unlawful.

Landlords who let rooms in their own homes to six or fewer people are exempt. There’s no obligation on anyone selling or letting property to make the property accessible. The law also doesn’t cover sales arranged without an estate agent.


It’s unlawful for education providers, such as schools, colleges and universities, to discriminate against or harass disabled students. This applies to admissions, education and related services.

External websites

This page is for general information only. It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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