Disabilities in the workplace

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Health Assured team

26 June 2020

Under the Equality Act 2010 (the Act), there are nine protected characteristics protecting individuals from discrimination in society and the workplace.


Disability is a protected characteristic under the Act, the legislation outlines when an individual is deemed disabled and protected from discrimination. The Act defines a disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.


The definition is broad and there are a wide variety of conditions and impairments that will be considered a disability under the Act. Some impairments automatically meet the definition of a disability under the Act, these include; HIV/Aids, multiple sclerosis, cancer, blindness/sever sight impairment and severe disfigurement.


The Act excludes certain conditions from the definition of a disability. For example, a condition which causes an individual to commit a criminal offence such as Kleptomania, an uncontrollable urge to steal something. In addition, addictions to or dependency upon alcohol and nicotine are not regarded as disabilities under the Act.


Reasonable Adjustments in the Workplace

According to the Commons Research Briefing published in January 2020, 19% of the UK working age population reported having a disability between July-September 2019, approximately 7.9 million people. This research also showed that 52% of people with a disability are currently in employment, which indicates that there is a large number of people with a protected characteristic in the workplace. The Act protects employees with disabilities in the workplace and requires employers to treat them with dignity and respect.


Employers may have to make reasonable adjustments to enable employees with disabilities to work and to ensure they are not disadvantaged in the workplace. This may require seeking consultation of an occupational health professional where necessary. This assessment allows employers to understand whether someone may have a protected characteristic and any adjustments that may be beneficial to implement. Although an occupational health professional cannot diagnose a disability, they are able to assess how an employee’s work may be affected and if there is anything the employer can do to assist them in the workplace.


Employers should assess the reasonability of the requested adjustment by considering the needs of the employee, the cost to the business, the practicality of implementing the change and whether the adjustment could cause other individuals harm.


Some examples of adjustments that may be implemented are extra aids in the workplace such as a wheelchair ramp or specialist equipment, or changing the employees shift pattern. An individualised approach is needed as each person’s may be different.



Unlawful discrimination is the unfair or less favourable treatment of an individual because they have a protected characteristic under the Act. Disability discrimination occurs when the unfair treatment is because the individual has a disability specifically. There are four types of discrimination that could affect an individual:


  • Direct discrimination: Individuals being treated less favourably due to their disability because they are thought to have a disability or because they associate with someone who has, or is believed to have a disability.
  • Indirect discrimination: Employers applying workplace policies across an entire organisation, but in doing so they disadvantage individuals with a disability.
  • Harassment: Unwanted conduct that creates a hostile environment and targets an individual’s physical or mental impairment.
  • Victimisation: Being victimised and treated unfairly because an individual has raised a complaint about being discriminated or witnessing discrimination.


Disabilities in the workplace and obligations during COVID-19

If a worker is considered disabled under the Act and deemed higher risk of developing severe illness during the pandemic due to a compromised immune system, employers may have a legal duty under that Act to make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s working arrangements. Employers also have a duty under the Act to implement reasonable adjustments that disabled workers may require when working from home.


Northern Ireland

The Equality Act 2010 applies to England, Scotland and Wales. The main anti-discrimination law in Northern Ireland is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In Northern Ireland, section 4A of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 imposes a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people in the workplace.


Republic of Ireland

The Equality Act 2010 does not apply to the Republic of Ireland. The general position under the main anti-discrimination law in Ireland (The Employment Equality Acts 1998–2015) is that employers are required to make certain ‘reasonable’ adjustments to the workplace to allow individuals with disability to carry out their role.



It’s important to know that if you need to access our services to discuss any concerns you may have, our confidential helpline is available 24/7, 365.


Alternatively, you can visit our portal to view advice articles, webinars and 4-week programmes all aimed at improving your physical and mental wellbeing:


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