Legislation and rights around disability


There are three key pieces of legislation which specifically address the rights of disabled people in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The key UK legislation is the Equality Act (2010)

The UK is also bound by the articles of the European Convention of Human Rights

And thirdly, the UK is also signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

There are some excellent resources already in existence on what this legislation means for disabled people and we will link to those at the end of this guide. 



The Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It came into force in October 2010 and replaced previous laws with one Act, making the law easier to understand.


Discrimination means treating you unfairly because of who you are. Under the Equality Act it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of their:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

These are called ‘protected characteristics’. Discrimination against one or more of these ‘characteristics’ is unlawful under the Act.

The Equality Act sets out the different ways  it is against the law to treat someone, such as: ‘direct and indirect discrimination’, ‘harassment’, ‘victimization’ and ‘failing to make a reasonable adjustment for a disabled person’. It protects you from discrimination by:

  • employers
  • businesses and organisations which provide goods or services (like shops and banks)
  • public bodies (like government departments and local councils)
  • health and care providers (like care homes and hospitals)
  • someone you rent or buy a property from (like housing associations and estate agents)
  • education providers (like schools and colleges)
  • transport services (like buses trains and taxis)

Disability Discrimination

The Equality Act defines a disabled person as:

“someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. 

The Equality Act includes special rules that ensure that people with HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis are seen as disabled people from the point they are diagnosed, rather than from when the conditions stops them carrying out normal day-to-day activities. Some conditions aren’t covered by the disability definition e.g. addiction to non-prescribed drugs or alcohol.

For further information on the definition of disability, see the Equality Act Guidance.

Duty to make reasonable adjustments

Employers, service providers and education providers have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, these are, 

  • Change the way things are done: you could ask the place to change the way it does the thing which makes it difficult for you to access. This could be a policy, rule or a practice. The Equality Act calls this a ‘provision, criterion or practice’
  • Change a physical feature: sometimes a physical feature of a building or other premises may make it more difficult for you to access or use it. Examples of reasonable adjustments to this could include providing ramps, widening doorways and better lighting
  • Provide extra aids or services: You may need a particular aid, piece of equipment or an additional service to help you access or do something. The Equality Act calls this ‘auxiliary aids and services’. Examples of auxiliary aids and services could include a portable induction loop for people with hearing aids or providing a British Sign Language interpreter.

Finding a reasonable adjustment can be a creative process as there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer. It might depend on:

  • how easy it is to make the changes
  • if the change you ask for would stop the problem you and other disabled people experience
  • the size of the organisation
  • how much money or resources they have
  • the cost of making changes

Public Sector Equality Duty

The Public Sector Equality Duty came into force in April 2011. It places a duty on public authorities to consider or think about how their policies and decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act. There are also Scottish Specific Duties.

European Convention on Human Rights

The Council of Europe was formed after the World War II and the European Convention of Human Rights came into force in 1953. It has been amended and added to over the years since. Here is a list of the rights it protects.

  • the right to life (Article 2)
  • freedom from torture (Article 3)
  • freedom from slavery (Article 4)
  • the right to liberty (Article 5)
  • the right to a fair trial (Article 6)
  • the right not to be punished for something that wasn’t against the law at the time (Article 7)
  • the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8)
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9)
  • freedom of expression (Article 10)
  • freedom of assembly (Article 11)
  • the right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
  • the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights (Article 14)
  • the right to protection of property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
  • the right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
  • the right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
  • the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13)

How these rights apply in individual countries is complex as domestic laws are not the same, some countries have not signed up to all of them and there are exemptions in particular circumstances. For example the right to liberty is not absolute. Your liberty can be taken away in certain circumstances such as when you break laws that could result in a prison sentence. 

Rights under the Convention are protected by the European Court of Human Rights but only after cases have been taken to the highest courts in the individual country. The European Court may rule that a particular action was illegal under European Human Rights Law but sometimes the ruling is less concrete than that. Some European Court rulings are “guidance” rather than law. 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is an international treaty which has existed since 2006 and which the UK signed in 2009. CRPD details a lot of specific rights that disabled people should have. In summary the aims of CRPD are:

  • eliminating disability discrimination

  • enabling disabled people to live independently in the community

  • ensuring an inclusive education system

  • ensuring disabled people are protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse

You can view the UNCRPD in full here:


You can also access the latest reports on how the UK is doing in relation to CRPD and human rights on the Equality and Human Rights Commission here:

Progress on disability rights in the United Kingdom: 2023 | EHRC (equalityhumanrights.com)


Information last updated on 3 May 2024. Please note that information may be subject to change. All information is provided in good faith but Disability Information Scotland does not endorse any product or service referred to within this resource.

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