Discriminating against a disabled employee is prohibited by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Employers that discriminate could find themselves facing a employment tribunal, claims and financial penalties if the case goes against them.
The Act defines a disabled person as someone who has a long-term (greater than 12 months) physical or mental impairment that substantially adversely affects day-to-day activities.
Impairment may include, for instance, learning disabilities or dyslexia but certain conditions do not count as impairment for the purposes of the Act.
These excluded conditions include addictions such as alcoholism, although a condition brought about via the addiction could be a disability that is covered - for example, depression, but not the alcoholism which caused the depression.
A person can be disabled even if their condition is controlled by medication or lifestyle changes.
The Act can also apply 'by association', so an employee who has a disabled child is protected, and reasonable adjustments would need to be made to enable them to care for their child.
The impairment must be sufficiently severe to adversely affect normal day-to-day activities, but it can also include highly specialised activities provided they are normal day-to-day activities for that person.
For discrimination to have taken place, the disabled person must have been subjected to an unlawful act - for example, regarding a job advert, recruitment, promotion, dismissal, post-employment matters - or to a detriment or harassment.
Claims can be brought against an employer for direct discrimination, harassment, victimisation, disability-related discrimination and failure to make reasonable workplace adjustments.
Avoiding disability discrimination
Martin Edwards is head of employment law at solicitors Mace & Jones, www.maceandjones.co.uk