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Disability Definition

How the Equality Act defines disability, what this means and who it may apply to.

Last updated: 25 March 2022

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The Equality Act 2010 is important, and it’s used to ensure equality and help prevent discrimination, but we also recognise that it doesn’t always reflect the social model of disability.

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

In addition to this legislative definition, the MU recognises and is informed by the social model of disability in formulating our position and policies relating to disability.

There is an assumption that there is a need to register or be classified as a disabled person, this isn’t true. For the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, people are defined as disabled if they meet a set of criteria.

Physical or mental impairment?

People who are covered by the act may be affected by various impairments or conditions.

Some conditions are automatically treated as a disability under the Equality Act, for example you automatically meet the disability definition from the day you’re diagnosed with HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis.

If you don’t have one of these conditions you’ll need to prove how your condition or impairment has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’, adverse effect on your ability to do day to day things.

See this Government Equalities Office page for more information on conditions that aren’t covered by the disability definition in the Equality Act.

What is a substantial effect?

Substantial means that the effect your condition or impairment has on your ability to do day to day things must be more than minor. For example, if you have relatively minor hearing loss or a visual impairment that can be corrected with glasses, then you’re unlikely to meet the definition of disability the Equality Act sets out.

Multiple issues will be relevant when deciding if the effect of your condition or impairment is substantial, these could include:

  • The time it takes you to carry out an activity
  • How you carry out an activity
  • If the impairment or condition has a minor effect on several activities which then adds up to a “substantial effect”

What is a long-term effect?

A long-term effect is defined as one that has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months, or for the rest of your life.

If your condition or impairment has had a substantial adverse effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities but that effect has stopped, the Equality Act still covers you if it is likely to recur.

Case study

Stacey has rheumatoid arthritis. For a few weeks after the first occurrence, she experiences substantial adverse effects. After this period Stacey has a period of remission.

As the substantial adverse effects of Stacey’s condition are likely to recur, she should be treated as if they were continuing. If the effects are likely to recur beyond 12 months after the first occurrence, they are treated as long-term.

Conditions that recur rarely or, come and go over time such as depression or arthritis, can still qualify for the purposes of the Equality Act.

Case study

Tom has bipolar affective disorder, a recurring form of depression.

The first episode occurred in months one and two of a 13-month period. The second episode took place in month 13.

Tom will satisfy the requirements of the definition in respect on the meaning of long-term, because the adverse effects have recurred beyond 12 months after the first occurrence and are therefore treated as having continued for the whole period (in this case, a period of 13 months).

The effects of your condition or impairment may change overtime, activities which are initially very difficult may become easier, and the effect might even disappear temporarily. You may still satisfy the long-term element of the definition even if the effect is not the same throughout the period.

Case study

Zainab has been diagnosed with Menieres Disease. This results in her experiencing mild tinnitus at times, which does not adversely affect her ability to carry out day-to-day activities. However, it also causes temporary periods of significant hearing loss every few months.

The hearing loss substantially and adversely affects her ability to conduct conversations or listen to the radio or television. Although Zainab’s condition does not continually have this adverse effect, it satisfies the long-term requirement because it has substantial adverse effects that are likely to recur beyond 12 months after she developed the impairment.

If you meet the definition of disability the Equality Act 2010 sets out, you are protected from discrimination and may have a right to reasonable adjustments at work and in using services.

Find out more about how the Equality Act 2010 protects those with ill mental health.

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