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Definition of 'disability'

Find out about the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and its definition of a person with disabilities. You can also learn about what help and guidance is available.

The definition of a person with disabilities

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) defines a person with disabilities as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. For the purposes of the Act:

  • substantial means that the effect of the disability is neither minor nor trivial - it does not have to be a severe effect
  • long-term means that the effect of the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months and the effect must be a detrimental one - a person with a life expectancy of less than twelve months is covered if the effect is likely to last for the whole of that time
  • normal day-to-day activities include everyday things like eating, washing, walking and going shopping

The person must be affected in at least one of the respects listed in the DDA:

  • mobility
  • manual dexterity
  • physical coordination
  • continence
  • ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects
  • speech, hearing, or eyesight
  • memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand
  • perception of risk of physical danger

If the effects of the disability are reduced by medication or other treatment then the relevant effects are those that would be present if there was no medication or treatment taking place. There is an exception to this rule for people who wear spectacles or contact lenses - then the relevant effects are those that remain while the spectacles or contact lenses are being used.

Special provisions

Special provisions cover particular conditions which might otherwise not be considered as disabilities. These are provisions covering:

  • recurring or fluctuating conditions, such as arthritis, where the effects can sometimes be less than substantial, which are treated as continuing to have a substantial adverse effect so long as that effect is likely to recur
  • conditions which progressively deteriorate, such as motor neurone disease, which count as having a substantial adverse effect from the first time they have any effect on the ability to carry out normal day to day activities even if it is not substantial, so long as there is eventually likely to be a substantial adverse effect
  • severe disfigurements, which are treated as having substantial adverse effects on the ability to carry out normal day to day activities, even if they have no actual effect at all.

Conditions that do not count as impairments

The following conditions specifically do not count as impairments:

  • addiction to or dependency on alcohol, nicotine or any other substance (unless resulting from the substance being medically prescribed)
  • seasonal allergic rhinitis - for example, hay fever - unless it aggravates the effect of another condition
  • tendency to set fires, or steal, or physically or sexually abuse other persons
  • exhibitionism and voyeurism and
  • disfigurements consisting of tattoos, non-medical body piercing or attachments to such piercing are not treated as having substantial adverse effects

More about the DDA

Much of the DDA also applies to people who have had a disability in the past - for example, someone who was disabled by mental ill health but who has now fully recovered. People who were registered disabled under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 both on 12 January 1995 and 2 December 1996 will be regarded as having had a disability in the past - if they do not otherwise fall within the definition of the DDA.

The Disability Discrimination (NI) Order 2006 amended the definition of disability. It ensured that people with HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis are deemed to be covered by the DDA effectively from the point of diagnosis, rather than from the point when the condition has some adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Also, from October 2007, there is no longer a requirement that a mental health condition is ´clinically well recognised´ before it can count as an impairment under disability discrimination law.

Guidance and codes of practice

The government has published statutory guidance, primarily to assist adjudicating bodies like courts and tribunals in deciding whether a person has disabilities for the purposes of the DDA.

The current guidance on matters to be taken into account in determining questions relating to the definition of disability' was revised on 21 April 2008.

You can read the current guidance on the website of Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). You can read codes of practice of the DDA on the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland website.

Help from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

The Equality Commission can provide free and confidential advice to people who believe they have been discriminated against for a reason related to their disability. It also provides free general advice to employers and service providers on recommended good practice under the Disability Discrimination Act.