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What is disability discrimination?

It's against the law for landlords, mortgage lenders and other service providers to treat disabled people less favourably than non-disabled people. This page looks at who's protected under disability discrimination law and what your rights are.

Where do my rights come from?

If you are disabled two important laws protect you from discrimination and improve your rights if you are renting or thinking about renting or if you want to buy a home and apply for a mortgage. These are:

  • the Equality Act 2010, and
  • the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

These apply to all people who have a disability, as defined by the Acts. Sometimes people who have a disability under these Acts don't actually consider themselves to be 'disabled'. However, they still have rights.

What is a 'disability'?

The Equality Act defines a disability as a physical or mental condition that has a long-term, adverse affect on your day-to-day life.

For example, you may have a disability if you:

  • have a sight or hearing impairment
  • have problems moving around (for example, climbing stairs or getting onto public transport)
  • have significant problems picking things up, handling things or lifting and carrying small weights
  • have significant problems co-ordinating your movements
  • have mental health problems or learning difficulties, or have a condition which makes it hard to concentrate or remember things
  • have problems with continence (the ability to control your bladder or bowels)
  • have a disfigurement such as a scar, birthmark or skin disease, or a postural deformation (this will depend on how severe the disfigurement is and where it is on your body)
  • have cancer, HIV or multiple sclerosis, even if you're not yet showing signs of the illness.

This may be a condition you were born with, such as Down's Syndrome or cerebral palsy, or which you acquire after an accident or illness, for example if you lose the use of a limb due to a car crash or a stroke, or you develop a heart condition. You may have a progressive condition, which gets worse gradually over time, such as muscular dystrophy or arthritis. Or you may have a condition that only affects you at certain times, such as bipolar disorder or epilepsy.

If your condition is corrected by the use of medication or other aids (for example, a hearing aid or prosthetic limb), you should take into account how the disability would affect you if you didn't have these treatments. This doesn't include the use of glasses or contact lenses, however.

The condition must be long-term, which means it should last longer than 12 months. This means that if you break your leg or are bedridden with flu, you won't be regarded as disabled.

What are my rights under the Equality Act?

Under the Equality Act service providers, such as councils, estate agents, letting agents and banks:

  • must not discriminate by treating disabled people less favourably than non-disabled people, and
  • must make reasonable adjustments to their services and premises, to ensure that disabled people can access them.

Who does the Equality Act protect me from?

It's against the law for the following people or organisations to discriminate against you:

  • employers
  • schools, universities and other education institutions
  • service providers (businesses and organisations which provide goods and services).

Service providers include:

  • businesses such as banks, letting agents, estate agents, shops, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, leisure centres and travel agents
  • organisations such as councils, hospitals, advice agencies and charities.

Public transport services are not covered by the Equality Act, so buses, trains and tube trains do not have to be accessible (although, stations, airports and booking facilities should be). However, service operators should always do their best to help you with your journey.

What is disability discrimination?

Under the Equality Act disability discrimination occurs when:

  • a disabled person is treated less favourably than a non-disabled person, and
  • they are treated this way for a reason arising from their disability, and
  • the treatment cannot be justified.

For example, if you use a wheelchair and are refused entry to a night club for this reason, this would be discrimination. If you use a wheelchair but are refused entry because you are wearing a football shirt and the club's dress code bans football shirts, this wouldn't be discrimination, because everyone in a football shirt will be turned away, regardless of whether or not they are disabled.

A service provider, such as a letting agent, would be treating a disabled person less favourably if they:

  • refuse to serve them,
  • offer them a reduced service or a worse standard of service than they offer to non-disabled people, or
  • offer them the service on poorer terms than they offer to non-disabled people (for example, by charging more).

What are 'reasonable adjustments'?

'Reasonable adjustments' are changes that service providers can make to their premises or services to make them more easily available to disabled people. These could include:

  • installing a disabled toilet
  • building a ramp or putting up handrails at the entrance to their premises
  • providing written information in alternative formats, for example in Braille or large print, or on CD.

Service providers also have to change policies, practices and procedures which make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use their service, even where they apply the same policy to everyone. They must also provide auxiliary aids and services, such as arranging an interpreter for a meeting, if that will help you use the service.

The definition of 'reasonable' depends on who the service provider is and what their resources are. For example, a large chain of estate agents would be expected to make more adjustments for disabled people than a small firm of estate agents who only have one office.

Are there any exceptions?

Sometimes service providers are legally allowed to treat a disabled person less favourably.

If there are health and safety concerns

A service provider can refuse to let a disabled person access their services or can restrict their use of the services if they have genuine concerns for the health and safety of the disabled person or any other people using their service. These concerns cannot be based on stereotypical conceptions of disabled people, such as the belief that wheelchair users will 'get in the way' in the event of an emergency. They must have real evidence that there is a danger, for example, by having a risk assessment carried out.

If the disabled person is incapable of entering into a contract

A service provider can refuse or restrict their services to a disabled person if they have evidence that the person cannot understand the nature of the transaction or give informed consent. For example, a mortgage lender may turn down a loan application from a person with senile dementia if they believe they don't understand the nature of the legal agreement. However, service providers can't refuse or restrict their services if someone else (for example, a partner or relative) is acting legally on the disabled person's behalf (for example, if they have a power of attorney).

If the service provider would otherwise be unable to provide the service to the public

Before refusing or restricting their services to disabled people on the grounds that otherwise they would not be able to provide their services to other people, the service provider must make sure that there are no ways they could get round this, for example by providing aids or extra assistance to help the disabled person access the service.

If the service provider would not otherwise be able to provide the service to the disabled person or other members of the public

A service provider can justify providing a reduced or worse service to the disabled person if this is the only way they can offer the service. For example, a hotel may only have a few rooms that are fully accessible, giving disabled people a reduced choice.

If offering the disabled person a tailor-made service costs the service provider more

Service providers are entitled to charge disabled people more if they are offering a special, tailor-made service. However, this service must be over and above any reasonable adjustments the service provider should make by law.

What can I do if I am being discriminated against?

If you feel that a person or service provider is discriminating against you, you can take action. The page on dealing with disability discrimination has more information.

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