Protection against disability discrimination

Find out about the laws that promote rights for people with disabilities and protect them from discrimination.

The laws against disability discrimination

There are two laws which promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities by banning disability discrimination and which give enforceable legal rights to people with disabilities. They are:

Disability discrimination law

Currently legislation bans employers discriminating against jobseekers and employees with disabilities, and by service providers against discriminating against service-users with disabilities.

It places a duty on employers and service providers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities to help them to overcome barriers they may face in gaining and remaining in employment and in accessing and using goods and services. The main activities covered are:

  • employment, including access to employment
  • access to and use of goods, facilities and services, including access to public buildings, shops and leisure facilities and to healthcare, housing and transport
  • certain other functions carried out by public bodies, such as policing and issuing licences
  • membership of private clubs and use of their facilities

You can find out more about your disability rights in different areas of life, including accessing and using the services of shops, cafés and banks from the following pages:

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland website also has information on disability discrimination.

Special education needs and disability 

Disability discrimination law does not apply to the provision of education in schools, colleges and universities. Instead, disability discrimination about to those matters is banned by a different law; which covers special educational needs and disability.

The special educational needs law also means that the owners, governors and managers of schools, colleges and universities have to make reasonable adjustments for children and adults with disabilities. This will help them to overcome barriers they may face in gaining access to a particular institution, and in completing their courses of study there. The law also bans disability discrimination by certain qualification awarding bodies.

You can find out more information about you and your children’s special educational needs rights from the following page:

Definition of 'disability'

The law covering both disability discrimination and special education needs defines the terms 'disability' and 'disabled person' in a special way and a person will benefit from the law only if he or she satisfies that definition. 

Not all people who are ill or injured or who have an impairment of some sort will qualify.

The following is only a short and incomplete guide to how this question is to be answered.

Impairments that definitely are qualifying disabilities

Cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV infection are deemed to be qualifying disabilities from the point in time that a person develops one or other of them.

It does not matter how long a person has the condition or how serious it is at any particular point in time.

Impairments that definitely are not qualifying disabilities

A small number of impairments are deemed by the law not to be qualifying disabilities. These are:

  • visual impairments that can be corrected with eye glasses or contact lenses
  • hay fever
  • addiction to alcohol or nicotine or drugs (except for properly prescribed medications)
  • a tendency to steal, or to set fires, or to physically or sexually abuse others
  • voyeurism and exhibitionism

All other impairments

For all other impairments, the answer is not as clear cut. There is no official list that specifies whether any other impairment is or is not a qualifying disability. So to decide whether a particular person has a qualifying disability means making an assessment about the length of time and severity of his or her particular impairment and about how it affects his or her daily life.

The relevant test is as follows:

  • it must be a physical or mental impairment that has a large and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities
  • 'long term' for this purpose means that the large adverse effects of the impairment must have lasted, or be likely to last, for at least 12 months
  • 'normal day-to-day activities' are simply the things that people generally do on a daily basis, for example walking to a bus stop, shopping, doing the housework, speaking on a telephone or reading a newspaper

Some people will have impairments that obviously satisfy this test, for example, a person who needs a wheelchair to move about or a person who is totally blind or profoundly deaf is clearly a disabled person.

In many other cases it will be less obvious and a person, such as an employer or service provider, may have to make an own assessment based on medical or other expert reports.

Remember, the definition of 'disability' does not only apply to physical impairments. The definition itself notes that mental health impairments are also covered.

Also, both case law and governmental guidance have noted that a wide range of learning disabilities are also covered, including impairments like autism and dyslexia.

The essential test is concerned with the length of time of the impairment and the severity of its impact on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Remember, this short guide to the 'disability' definition is incomplete. A fuller description would also note some special rules that apply to impairments that consist of severe disfigurements, progressive conditions (other than cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV infection) and conditions whose adverse effects fluctuate in severity. It would also note special rules about past disabilities and the effects of medical treatment and some other issues.

Help from the Equality Commission for NI

The Equality Commission can provide free and confidential advice to people who believe they have been discriminated against because of their disability. It also provides free general advice to employers and service providers on recommended good practice.

Public sector: disability equality and disability duties

Public authorities in Northern Ireland include NI Executive departments, health and social care trusts, the Housing Executive, housing associations, local councils, the Education Authority and the PSNI.

As well as the general rules against subjecting people with disabilities to disability discrimination, most public authorities are under two other duties to promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities, amongst others. They are also legally required to have due regard to:

  • promote equality of opportunity between people with a disability and people without (Section 75)
  • promote positive attitudes towards people with a disability (Section 49A)
  • encourage the participation of people with a disability in public life (Section 49A)

This means that when carrying out their functions, such as when making decisions and policies and in setting their priorities, public authorities must give serious consideration to these three goals and consider taking suitable action to achieving them.

As well as these main duties, each public authority must have a Section 75 'equality scheme' and a Section 49A plan (commonly called a 'disability action plan').

These documents outline the arrangements that each public authority proposes to follow in order to help them meet these duties.

The arrangements outline how and when public authorities will carry out important procedures like equality impact assessments and consultations. They also outline each public authority’s arrangements for training their staff to make sure they are aware of their duties and each public authority’s complaints procedure for dealing with complaints about alleged breaches of the duties.

Find out more 

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) has responsibility for enforcing the Disability Equality Duty and Section 75 equality duty. It can investigate alleged breaches of duties.

You can find information about ECNI’s approach to enforcement and further detailed information on these processes on its website:

More information

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