Disability in the United Kingdom

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Disability is an issue that directly affects a significant proportion of the population of the United Kingdom. Section6(1) of the Equality Act 2010 defines disability as:

"A person has a disability for the purposes of the Act if he or she has a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."[1]


In 2014 more than 11 million British people (excluding Northern Ireland) were reported to have a long term impairment or disability. The incidence rises with age; about 6% of children, 16% of working age adults and 45% of pensioners are reported as having a disability.[2]

Legislation and government policy[edit]

Under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (1995, extended in 2005), it is unlawful for organisations to discriminate (treat a disabled person less favourably, for reasons related to the person's disability, without justification) in employment; access to goods, facilities, services; managing, buying or renting land or property; education. Businesses must make "reasonable adjustments" to their policies or practices, or physical aspects of their premises, to avoid indirect discrimination.[3]

Since 2010 the Disability Discrimination Act has been replaced with the Equality Act 2010. This act still protects disabled people against discrimination but also encompasses a number of other characteristics including age, gender reassignment, marriage, pregnancy, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.[4]

Policies and legislation in Northern Ireland differs significantly from the rest of the UK.


Medical treatment in the United Kingdom is generally free under the NHS. Social Care is subject to a means test. Some services required by disabled people do not fall clearly into either category, and are subject to local rationing decisions. It has been suggested that the safeguards in respect of waiting times provided by the NHS Constitution for England are often not met.[5]

Wigs and trusses[edit]

Provision of NHS wigs and fabric supports, i.e. spinal or abdominal supports or surgical brassieres supplied through a hospital are covered by the NHS Low Income Scheme.


Wheelchairs both manual and electric are supplied and maintained free of charge for disabled people whose need for such a chair is permanent.[6] The specific criteria of eligibility are decided locally by clinical commissioning groups in England and health boards in Wales. Applicants must be referred by a clinician. Assessment and provision is in the hands of NHS wheelchair services, some of which offer a voucher scheme which permit a disabled person to add their own funds to the value of the chair which they are assessed as needing.[7]

In 2017 there were about 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK, of whom about two thirds were regular users. According to NHS England there were widespread delays in getting chairs, and about half the users develop a pressure ulcer at some point caused, in part, by ill-fitting or ill-equipped chairs. Proposals to improve the commissioning and provision of wheelchair services were formulated in 2015 with the help of the National Wheelchair Leadership Alliance, set up by Tanni Grey Thompson.[8] The vouchers will be replaced by personal wheelchair budgets, based on an assessment of individual needs and goals. The British Medical Association’s annual meeting in 2107 unanimously passed a motion calling for wheelchair users to have “timely access to chairs suitable for their individual conditions".[9] There are particular problems with the supply of electric wheelchairs.[10] In 2017 more than 5,100 children, about 18%, had to wait more than four months from the time of their referral to their chair being delivered.[11] Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson said, “If a child doesn’t have the right chair it means they cannot go to school, it means children are harder to handle for parents, it means potentially more respite care.”[12]

Hearing aids[edit]

Hearing aids have been targeted for cutbacks in the NHS as pressure grows on budgets. North Staffordshire Clinical commissioning group decided that from October 2015 they would no longer pay for hearing aids for people with mild hearing loss or some people with moderate hearing loss. This will save around £200,000 a year. The decision was accepted by Staffordshire County Council's health scrutiny committee in June 2015.[13] It is expected that the other CCGs in the county will adopt a similar policy.[14] In June 2017 Milton Keynes clinical commissioning group was reported to be considering rationing the supply of hearing aids to one per person, and none for people with mild hearing loss or moderate hearing loss unless they could show they were “suffering a significant negative impact”. Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, which runs community services in the area, complained that these proposals were “incredibly damaging”, contrary to national policy, robust evidence, and professional opinion..."[15]


Disability rights has a long and varied history in the UK, ranging from the establishment of a pioneering organisation in the 1970s to more recent cutbacks of social security benefits and consequent protests. The UK was an early adopter of anti-discrimination legislation in 1995 and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009.[16] The organised disability rights movement in the UK can trace its roots back to the establishment of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation in the early 1970s. The organisation's founding principles gave rise to the social model of disability.[17]

Disabled people disputing benefit claims are usually denied legal aid forcing them to deal with complex and distressing cases without help. The numbers disputing when benefits are denied have fallen drastically and it is feared the most vulnerable are losing out.[18]

The treatment of disabled people was an issue in the United Kingdom general election, 2017. The Green Party and Labour Party both produced separate disability manifestos.[19] The Green Party document was launched by their candidate in Putney, Ben Fletcher, who is deafblind.[20]

Disability benefits[edit]

Disabled people protesting in 2015 against government policies and the inaccessibility of the assessment centre which has now been taken over by Maximus Inc. outside St Marys House, Norwich.
Disabled people protesting in 2015 against government policies and the inaccessibility of the assessment centre which has now been taken over by Maximus outside St Marys House, Norwich.

A number of financial and care support services, commonly referred to as disability benefits are available.[21] Incapacity Benefit and Income Support have been replaced firstly by Employment Support Allowance and subsequently by Universal Credit which are seen as less generous and more coercive. Social security benefit claimants with disabilities are 53% more likely to have their benefits sanctioned than claimant without disabilities. Disabled people complain about job centre staff not understanding their disability. Mark Atkinson of disability charity Scope said, “Punitive sanctions can be extremely harmful to disabled people, who already face the financial penalty of higher living costs. There is no clear evidence that cutting disabled people’s benefits supports them to get into and stay in work. Sanctions are likely to cause unnecessary stress, pushing the very people that the government aims to support into work further away from the jobs market.”[22] In 2017 roughly 4,600 disabled claimants had their benefits incorrectly stopped because they did not attend interviews with good reason.[23]

Disability Living Allowance has been replaced, for people over 16, by Personal Independence Payment.

Many UK disabled people cannot afford proper food or cannot afford to keep their homes warm due to benefit cuts. Research by Leonard Cheshire Disability shows struggling families. Also 27% of working age disabled adults have less than £50 spending money per week after paying income tax, council tax and housing costs. 54% of those without social care or with inadequate care feel isolated and lonely. 53% felt lack of help worsened their mental health. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported disabled people were disproportionately harmed by tax and welfare changes since 2010, and disabled families lost up to £10,000 annually.[24]


Statistics, legislation and policies[edit]

Total UK employment growth measured against disabled employment growth.[25][26]

The employment rate for disabled people of working age in the UK is 45%, whereas those without a disability it is 77%.[27]:16 This is in spite of The Equality Act 2010 requiring employers to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled person so they are not at a 'substantial disadvantage'.[28] However this Act, and previous acts,[29] has had a positive impact, for example, Sainsbury's has recruited over 2,000 disabled people within four years,[27]:19 Marks & Spenser's have taken on over 1,000 disabled people,[30] and BT has provided sustainable opportunities for over 300 disabled people since 2003.[30]

Despite this action, statistics show that 33% of disabled people are employed full-time, compared to 60% of non-disabled people.[31]:100 It is clear from these statistics that disabled people are denied parity of participation in economic terms as less than half the disabled population are employed, and even less again are employed full-time, thus there are significant obstacles in their way to participate fully in the economic sphere. Not all of the UK has adapted The Equality Act 2010, which in turn has led to inconsistency in the UK.[31] Northern Ireland [32][33] still operate under The Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

While the statistics above show that there was an increase of employment of disabled people within certain companies, this Act has not been as effective as was hoped, as employers were allowed to discriminate against disabled employees, as long as it was justified within the Act.[34] For more consistency and in an effort to promote businesses employing more disabled people Lord Freud claimed that businesses should be able to employ disabled people for below the minimum wage. Freud claims that businesses would be more willing to employ disabled people as they will not be at a loss if disabled people do not perform at the same level as non-disabled people.[35] Freud claims that other countries have similar approaches in place and it is worth looking at the approach different countries have adapted.

Creating opportunities for disabled people in the workplace[edit]

Making the workplace more inclusive for all of those who are discriminated against is part of a much wider campaign, and is not merely a matter just for legislation.[36] In regard to disabled people in particular, The Disability Discrimination Act: A Guide for Managers and Employers[37] suggests a number of guidelines for employers to avoid discrimination. These include understanding the social dimension of disabilities, recognising the diverse nature of disabilities, avoid making assumptions, finding out disabled people needs and seeking expert help. This in turn combines fulfilling the legal aspect of avoiding discrimination and changing social attitudes.[37]:13

In the UK, self-employment is an option for disabled people. Of those in paid work, 18 per cent of disabled men and 8 per cent of disabled women are self-employed as their main job, compared to only 14 per cent and 6 per cent of non-disabled men and women respectively.[38] Many disabled people are not familiar with the rules regarding self-employed work.[38] Self-employment is also sometimes the only option for some disabled people who may require flexible working patterns as a result of their impairment.[39]

The Business Disability Forum (BDF), formerly the Employers' Forum on Disability, is a membership organisation of UK businesses.[40] Following the introduction of the DDA the membership of BDF recognised the need for a tool with which they could measure their performance on disability year on year.

In 2005 eighty organisations took part in the Disability Standard benchmark providing the first statistics highlighting the UK's performance as a nation of employers. Following the success of the first benchmark Disability Standard 2007 saw the introduction of the Chief Executives' Diamond Awards for outstanding performance and 116 organisations taking the opportunity to compare trends across a large group of UK employers and monitor the progress they had made on disability. 2009 saw the introduction of the third benchmark, Disability Standard 2009.[40][41]

In 2012 the BDF had a number of initiatives to assist businesses in meeting and including the needs of disabled customers and employees. These consisted of The Technology Taskforce (a Business Disability Forum partner initiative which brings together some of the world's largest procurers and suppliers of ICT); Accessible Technology Charter (launched in November 2011) in which the 'Accessibility Maturity Model' (AMM) is a self-assessment tool to enable businesses to identify and plan key policies for accessible and usable technologies.[citation needed]

However, a report by the Social Market Foundation and Trust for London found that disabled people are not being supported into work enough in London. It found that there are 370,000 unemployed disabled Londoners, and a disability employment gap of 38.5%. This is still lower than national average disability employment gap of 41.5%.[42]


Children with a disability that impacts on their education are entitled to support from their school. Children with more complex disabilities may be given an Education and Healthcare Plan (EHCP).[43]

People in higher education with a disability are entitled to apply for Disabled Student's Allowance, which provides funding for equipment and support a student may need for their studies.[44]



The development of disability art began in the 1970s / 80s as a result of the new political activism of the disabled peoples' movement.[45] The exact date the term came into use is currently unverified, although the first use of the term in the Disability Arts Chronology is 1986.[46] During this period the term "disability art" in the disability arts movement has been retrospectively agreed to mean "art made by disabled people which reflects the experience of disability".[47]

As the movement and term developed, the disability arts movement began to expand from what mainly started out as disabled people's cabaret to all art forms. The disability arts movement began to grow year on year and was at its height during the late 1990s.[46] Key exhibitions which looked at disability art happened like Barriers, which was an exhibition considering physical, sensory and intellectual limitation and its effect on personal art practice. (8 Feb - 16 Mar 2007: Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth)[46] and the creation of the Disability Film Festival in London in 1999.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-15. Retrieved 2015-04-07.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "Disability facts and figures". Department for Work and Pensions - Office for Disability Issues. 2014-01-16. Retrieved 2017-06-05.
  3. ^ "DDA and related statutes". Disability Rights Commission. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved April 7, 2015.
  4. ^ "Independent Living Guide to Equality Act 2010 and How to Deal with Discrimination". Independentliving.co.uk. October 1, 2010. Retrieved August 11, 2012.
  5. ^ "NHS delays leave thousands facing long wait for wheelchairs". Guardian. 21 March 2017. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  6. ^ [160 Disability Rights handbook] Check |url= value (help) (37 ed.). London: Disability Rights UK. 2012. ISBN 9781903335567. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  7. ^ "Choosing mobility equipment, wheelchairs and scooters". NHS Choices. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  8. ^ "Improving wheelchair services". NHS England. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  9. ^ "Need a wheelchair? Pay for it yourself". Guardian. 19 July 2017. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  10. ^ "Harpenden disabled man's wheelchair campaign after NHS refusal". Herts Advertiser. 8 April 2017. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  11. ^ "'Alarming' figures show thousands still waiting too long for wheelchairs". Health Service Journal. 14 August 2018. Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  12. ^ Disabled children waiting too long for NHS wheelchairs The Guardian
  13. ^ "Hearing aids cut for North Staffordshire backed at Stafford meeting". Staffordshire Newsletter. 9 June 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  14. ^ "NHS to begin denying people hearing aids for first time". Guardian. 1 October 2015. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
  15. ^ "Trust warns CCG over 'incredibly damaging' rationing proposals". Health Service Journal. 1 June 2017. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  16. ^ "United Nations Treaty Collection". Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  17. ^ "UPIAS". Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People. 2008-07-03. Archived from the original on 2008-07-03.
  18. ^ Disabled people lose legal aid in 99% of benefits disputes The Guardian
  19. ^ "General Election manifestos 2017". Disability Rights. 2 June 2017. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  20. ^ "Green Party announce first Deafblind parliamentary candidate with launch of disability manifesto". Inews. 29 May 2017. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  21. ^ "Disabled People: Financial support". Directgov. Archived from the original on July 20, 2008. Retrieved August 11, 2012.
  22. ^ More than a million benefits sanctions imposed on disabled people since 2010 The Observer
  23. ^ 4,600 disabled people 'wrongly' lost benefit BBC
  24. ^ Disabled people struggle to afford food and heating, study says The Guardian
  25. ^ "A08: Labour market status of disabled people - Office for National Statistics". Ons.gov.uk. Retrieved 2018-03-09.
  26. ^ "UK labour market - Office for National Statistics". Ons.gov.uk. Retrieved 2018-03-09.
  27. ^ a b Department for Work and Pensions 2013, The disability and health employment strategy: the discussion so far.
  28. ^ The Equality Act 2010 s 20.
  29. ^ Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  30. ^ a b Employers 'biased against the disabled' G. Lewis, People Management, 2014, p 9
  31. ^ a b S Fredman Discrimination Law (2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford:2011) p 97
  32. ^ Under the Disability Discrimination (NI) Order 2006 http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/the-disability-discrimination-act-dda last assessed 2 November 2014
  33. ^ Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/People/Equality/disability/publicsectorduty last assessed 2 November 2014
  34. ^ A. McColgan Discrimination Law: Texts, Cases and Materials (2nd edn, Hart Publishing, Oxford and Portland, Oregon, 2005) p 132 and pp 583-584.
  35. ^ Sam Bowman 'Lord Freud was right and Miliband Shameful' The Spectator 15 October 2014 last assessed 2 November 2014
  36. ^ R. Fevre et al. 'Discrimination and Unfair Treatment in the Workplace" British Journal of Industrial Relations 2001 s229
  37. ^ a b M. Crick Manager: British Journal of Administrative Management, 2007, Issue 57, Database: Business Source Premier
  38. ^ a b Boylan, A. and Burchardt, T. (2002) Barriers to self-employment for disabled people, Report for the Small Business Service, available at http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file38357.pdf, last accessed January 2010
  39. ^ Association of Disabled Professionals (2007) 'Setting Up In Business? A Resource Guide for Disabled People and their Advisors', ADP, availability details at http://www.adp.org.uk/news.php
  40. ^ a b "Welcome to Business Disability Forum". Businessdisabilityforum.org.uk. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
  41. ^ "Business Disability Forum". Disability Standard. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
  42. ^ "Supporting disabled people into work". Trust for London. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  43. ^ "Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)". GOV.UK. Government Digital Service. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  44. ^ "Help if you're a student with a learning difficulty, health problem or disability". GOV.UK. Government Digital Service. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  45. ^ "What is Disability Art?: Disability Arts Cymru". 2013-01-20. Archived from the original on 2013-01-20.
  46. ^ a b c Allan, Sutherland (22 July 2008). "Disability Arts Chronology: 1977 - 2003". Disability Arts Online. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  47. ^ "What is Disability Arts?". Edward Lear Foundation. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  48. ^ Ollie, Chase (15 December 2008). "LDAF: So much more than a charity case". BBC. Retrieved 27 June 2017.

External links[edit]