Tackling disability discrimination at work

While awareness surrounding the concept of equality and diversity is increasing across the UK, discrimination still occurs at a substantial rate – especially against disabled people 

From stereotyping, unconscious bias, microaggressions, and exclusion from employment opportunities, the issues that many disabled workers face is often dismissed or brushed to the side – this is known as disability discrimination.  

Ableism and disablism

Disablism is the bias, prejudice and discrimination of anyone living with a disability (mental or physical). 

Ableism is the discrimination of disabled people in favour of non-disabled people.

What does the law say?

People who experience disability discrimination are protected under the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005. You are protected under this law if:

  • You have a disability.
  • Someone thinks you have a disability.
  • You are connected to someone with a disability.
What is classed as a disability?

Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is listed as a physical or mental condition which has a substantial and long-term impact on your ability to do normal day to day activities. This can range from anything that affects your vision, movement, cognitive function, learning, communicating, hearing, or mental health.

You are also protected under the Equality Act 2010 for any progressive conditions you have such as cancer, or HIV, even if you can carry out normal day to day activities, as well as for any disabilities you have had previously.

Different types of disability discrimination

It is vital to understand the different types of disability discrimination so that you know what your rights are under the Equality Act 2010. They are as follows:

  • Direct discrimination – When you are treated less favourably because of a disability, you are associated with someone with a disability or when someone thinks you have a disability.
  • Indirect discrimination – When a practice, policy or rule applies to everyone, but puts disabled people at a disadvantage.
  • Failure to make reasonable adjustments – When your employer fails to make appropriate changes at work to accommodate your disability.
  • Discrimination arising from disability – When you are treated less favourably, not for your disability, but for issues that relate to your disability e.g., absence from work because of hospital appointments.
  • Harassment – When you experience unwanted behaviour because of your disability that either violates your dignity or has created a hostile work environment.
  • Victimisation – When you are treated differently or less favourably because you are involved with a discrimination or harassment complaint.
Whose responsibility is it to deal with discrimination?

Your employer has a responsibility to protect employees, workers, contractors, the self-employed and job applicants with disabilities from discrimination and they must take steps to prevent it from happening.

Your employer is also responsible for the wellbeing of their disabled employees. If an employer is unsupportive of an employee who experiences discrimination at work, they could be in breach of their employment contract, and could even face charges for constructive dismissal.

Employers also have a duty of care to ensure that disabled workers aren’t disadvantaged at work, including making reasonable adjustments to remove, prevent or reduce any barriers that may affect them. Failure to provide such adjustments may constitute as discrimination, and that employer could be taken to an employment tribunal.

Employers should take any complaints of disability discrimination and any following investigations seriously.

Who can experience disability discrimination?

If you experience discrimination at work, this can be from anyone you encounter because of your job, including:

  • Colleagues.
  • Your employer, manager, or anyone else who is in a position of authority at your place of work.
  • A member of the public like a client, customer, or member.

It is your employer’s responsibility to take steps to prevent disability discrimination from happening or act when it does.

What constitutes as disability discrimination?

Disability discrimination can occur in person or online via email, social media, or messaging apps. This can occur as a one-off incident, or regularly. This can take on many forms, ranging from obvious disability discrimination to less obvious interactions. The following can constitute:

  • Making inappropriate comments about a disability.
  • Telling jokes which are offensive to disabled people.
  • Putting non-disabled people before disabled people.
  • Bullying someone for their disability.
  • Using ableist language.
  • Failing to put reasonable adjustments in place.
  • Failing to make information available in an accessible format e.g., braille or British Sign Language.
  • Telling someone they don’t look disabled.
  • Lack of workplace accessibility e.g., no wheelchair access.
  • Hiring an non-disabled person over a disabled person, because of their disability.
  • Making a disabled worker redundant over a non-disabled person, because of their disability.

Even if the perpetrator of the discrimination considers their behaviour to be a joke, it is still classified as disability discrimination if their behaviour is:

  • Of a discriminatory nature.
  • Unwanted.
  • Violating yours or someone else’s dignity or creates an intimidating or degrading environment at work.

Discrimination typically directed at an individual or group of individuals, but some workplaces can normalise a culture of disability discrimination e.g., discriminatory inappropriate “banter” between colleagues. You can still make a complaint of discrimination in this situation.

I am facing disability discrimination at work. What do I do?

If you are the target of disability discrimination at work, we recommend you do the following:

  • Speak to your union (us!) or your union rep.
  • Make a complaint to your employer (remember, it is their legal duty to protect your wellbeing at work).
  • Keep a note of any instances of discrimination, including dates/times or witnesses.
  • Speak up – don’t be afraid to challenge prejudice and confront disability discrimination at work, if you feel safe to do so.
How do I make a complaint?

We would first advise that you speak with your trade union rep to receive support when making a formal complaint about being the victim of discrimination at work.

Your employer may have their own discrimination policy to deal with any disability discrimination in the workplace, so you should follow that procedure to raise a grievance.

Where do I find my workplace’s policy on discrimination?

This should be in the same place your workplace houses all your workplace policy on discrimination.

This should be somewhere easily accessible such as a staff handbook or company intranet.

It should outline how your employer deals with discrimination complaints and who to send your complaint to.

My complaint is not being dealt with. What can I do?

If you have raised a formal grievance or the problem has not been resolved, you can make a claim to an employment tribunal. You should inform Community immediately if you intend to do this as our legal team may be able to provide advice and support you through this process.   

I have witnessed disability discrimination at work. What should I do?

If you witness disability discrimination at work, we will always recommend that if you feel safe to do so, speak out against it. No one should feel afraid to confront disablism, ableism, or any other forms of discrimination in the workplace and by speaking out, you may also encourage other employees, and your employer to contribute to a more inclusive work environment. 

Following an incident of ableism or disablism, you can: 

  • Support any complaints made by the victim.
  • Report the incident to your trade union rep and/or employer.
  • Make a discrimination complaint yourself if the incident has created an intimidating or degrading environment at work.
  • Keep a note of any instances of ableism, including dates/times or witnesses.
  • Talk to the victim to see if they want your support.
  • Become a Community Equalities Rep and help us fight against disability discrimination across the UK.

If you need help or advice, please contact us at help@community-tu.org or on 0800 389 6332.


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