So, what does the term ‘disability’ mean exactly?

It is estimated that there are over 5 million disabled people of working age in the UK plus a further 5 million disabled people over state pension age, but the term ‘disabled’ means different things to different people. The range and breadth of impairments that we all come across in our everyday lives is substantial; some are obvious, most are not. So what is the legal definition of ‘disability’?

The Equality Act 2010 definition of disability is:
‘A person has a disability for the purpose of this Act if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ The terms used in this definition can be ambiguous, so it’s important to clarify them:

What are ‘long-term adverse effects’?
‘Long-term adverse effect’ means that it must have lasted, or be expected to last, twelve months or more, or be expected to last the rest of a person’s life.

What is ‘substantial’?
Something more than minor or trivial - it does not have to be severe.

What are ‘normal day to day activities’?
Activities carried out by most people on a fairly regular and frequent basis. This does not include activities which are normal only for a particular person, or group of people, i.e. playing a musical instrument, sport or work.

What is an ‘impairment’?

An impairment affects the ability of a person to carry out normal day-to-day activities.  A disability can arise from a wide range of impairments which can be:

• sensory impairments, such as those affecting sight or hearing;

• impairments with fluctuating or recurring effects such as rheumatoid arthritis, myalgic encephalitis (ME)/chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, depression and epilepsy;

• progressive, such as motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy, forms of dementia and lupus (SLE);

• organ specific, including respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and cardiovascular diseases, including thrombosis, stroke andheart disease;

• developmental, such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia and dyspraxia;

• learning difficulties;

• mental health conditions and mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, bipolar affective disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, as well as personality disorders and some self-harming behaviour;

• produced by injury to the body or brain.

An exhaustive list of conditions that qualify as impairments for the purposes of the law has not been created as lists often go out of date quickly with medical advancements.  It is important to remember that not all impairments are readily identifiable. While some impairments, particularly visible ones, are easy to identify, there are many which are not so immediately obvious.  

Points to note:

• the definition of disability is broad, and you may be surprised how many people might be considered ‘disabled’ under the Act. It is not just physical conditions, such as blindness or wheelchair use, but many hidden conditions, like learning disabilities, stress and depression that class a person as ‘disabled’. 

• the Equality Act also protects people with a range of conditions often not traditionally thought of as ‘impairments’. For example, people undergoing kidney dialysis, or who have dyslexia, Crohn’s Disease or speech impairment.

• people with severe facial or bodily disfigurement (not including tattoos or body piercings) are protected by the Act without the need to demonstrate any effect on ability to carry out normal day to day activities, provided it is long term or recurring.  Examples of disfigurements include scars, birthmarks, limb or postural deformation (including restricted bodily development), or diseases of the skin.

• The Act states that a person who has cancer, HIV infection or multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disabled person. This means that the person is protected by the Act effectively from the point of diagnosis.

Are there any exclusions?

Certain conditions are not regarded as impairments in the eyes of the law. These are:

• addiction to, or dependency on, drugs or alcohol unless it is a result of the substance being medically prescribed

• seasonal allergic rhinitis (i.e. hayfever) except where it aggravates the effect of another impairment

• tendencies to set fires, steal, physically or sexually abuse other people, exhibitionism or voyeurism

• tattoos (which have not been removed) or non-medical body piercing

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