Defining disability

This section explains the legal definition of disability.

This content applies to Scotland

Definition of disability

The Equality Act 2010 ('the 2010 Act') defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. [1] Under the 2010 Act an individual is no longer required to include an activity from a specified list, as was the case under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 ('the 1995 Act'), thus making it easier for some individuals to prove that they are disabled. Schedule 1 and the Explanatory Notes to the 2010 Act provide further guidance on what constitutes a 'normal day-to-day activity'. [2] The Government's Equalities Office has also produced guidance on Disability Discrimination which is a useful aid in determining whether a person fits the definition of disabled under the 2010 Act.

Categories of persons defined as disabled

The 2010 Act also defines people with cancer, HIV infection and multiple sclerosis as having a disability. [3] This means that people who fall into each of these categories do not have to prove that their condition has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This protection was introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 which extended the definition of a disability contained in the 1995 Act. In addition, the 2005 Act removed the requirement for a mental illness to be 'clinically well-recognised' before a person is recognised as disabled, which has been carried into the 2010 Act. [4] New regulations also define people who are 'certified blind, severely sight impaired, sight impaired or partially sighted' as disabled. [5]

Categories of persons excluded from being defined as disabled

These regulations also exclude certain conditions from being defined as an impairment for the purposes of the 2010 Act. [6] These include; addictions, such as addiction to alcohol, nicotine or any other substance, excluding addictions resulting from medically prescribed drugs or treatments. Also included is; the tendancy to set fires, steal, physically or sexually abuse other people or a tendancy for exhibitionism. Furthermore, tattoos and piercings are not to be considered as severe disfigurements which have an adverse effect on the ability of a person to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Last updated: 9 December 2019


  • [1]

    s.6(1)(a)-(b) Equality Act 2010

  • [2]

    sch.1 and paras. 40 and 682-3 Equality Act 2010

  • [3]

    sch.1 s.6(1)-(2) Equality Act 2010 

  • [4]

    sch.1 Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as amended by s.18 Disability Discrimination Act 2005 (both repealed by the Equality Act 2010)

  • [5]

    s.7 Equality Act 2010 (Disability) Regulations 2010

  • [6]

    ss. 3-5 Equality Act 2010 (Disability) Regulations 2010