Diversity Guide – Disability

Under the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability if they have, or have had, a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.  It includes recurring and progressive conditions (i.e. the adverse effect will arise in future because of the acquired condition) and long term illnesses and conditions.  Types of disability:

  • Mobility disabilities
  • Manual dexterity or other physical disabilities
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairments
  • Deaf (British Sign Language users)
  • Learning disabilities or mental/cognitive problems such as acquired brain injury
  • Neuro-divergence such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD
  • Mental health conditions
  • Communication difficulty
  • Severe disfigurement
  • People with a long-term health condition or illness such as cancer, fibromyalgia, ME, diabetes or HIV

Disabled people may have one or more of the conditions listed above and may even feel their characteristic or condition is not ‘a disability’ or ‘impairment’ as such, even though they are protected by the Act under this definition.

The Equality Act also protects people from discrimination by association or perception. A carer may be covered by their association to a disabled person if they are treated less favourably because of that person’s disability.

‘Discrimination arising from disability’ is: treating someone less favourably because of something connected with their disability and this is not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.  For example, not letting someone access premises because they use a walking stick or have an assistance dog.

Barriers faced by disabled people include:

  • Steps, or slippery/highly polished, uneven, cluttered or narrow paths/corridors/floors.
  • Heavy doors and gates, or ones with handles that are too difficult to reach. Security barriers (if various disabilities not considered).
  • Environments that are too bright or too dark.
  • Poor communications or access to visual or audio information (written word or images, speech or sounds, vague instruction or jargon, lack of colour contrast or poor use of colour such as red on green or medium red on dark red, websites or apps that do not comply with accessibility standards).
  • Attitudes and assumptions made (including the assumption that someone can’t do something); lack of awareness of rights.
  • Lack of employers willing to employ someone with a disability despite them being skilled and committed.
  • Noisy or busy environments.
  • Change (this can be particularly difficult for people with learning disability, neuro-divergence, mental health problems and people with visual impairments – especially those with guide dogs because a change to a route means the dog needs to be retrained).
  • Stressful situations.

Not all people will be disabled by these situations – it depends upon the disability.

Reasonable Adjustments

A Duty to make Reasonable Adjustments applies to disability.

An adjustment can include providing a reasonable alternative, in consultation with the disabled person(s). What is ‘reasonable’ can depend upon a number of factors including the whole organisation’s resources and the difference a particular adjustment would make. Consult the Corporate Equality Officer if unsure. In relation to the provision of services and employment, a disabled person should not have to pay for the cost of an adjustment. The duty to identify and make reasonable adjustments is an ‘anticipatory duty’ in relation to services and public functions – therefore it is necessary to consider the needs of potential customers.  This can be achieved through buildings access audits and service impact assessments. As a minimum, consideration needs to be given to physical access as well as communications and access to information.

Once it is known that someone requires an adjustment (for example, information in large print) they should not have to keep asking for this from the service. It will also be necessary to pass on information about adjustments to other services where referrals are made or many services involved.

To advance equality of outcomes for disabled people, take steps to meet needs and overcome barriers even if this requires ‘more favourable treatment’ (positive discrimination is permitted for disability).  For example, putting disabled parking bays near to the entrance, giving someone more time in an interview test, providing support or advocacy, shortlisting disabled applications on essential criteria only (as required under the Disability Confident scheme).

Accessible venues should be used where possible and must be used if someone has this need.  An accessible venue will have, as a minimum, accessible toilet facilities and wheelchair access to all areas to be used, including corridors. It is worth checking out new venues and not relying on the provider’s assessment of accessibility.

Creating an accessible environment enables disabled people to access places independently and easily.

Fully accessible environments include those which:

  • Make sure the environment is fully accessible for wheelchair users.
  • Enable access to and within buildings and environments through the same routes as other people. An access up a ramp at the rear of a building can feel insulting and take longer. However, sometimes this is necessary for older buildings.
  • Provide a reasonable amount of disabled parking bays near to the main entrance. Note that vehicle height/size restrictions can also disproportionately affect wheelchair users who are increasingly driving larger vehicles or using automated rooftop carriers to accommodate their equipment.
  • Provide clear and simple signage and maps which use easy words and symbols to aid communication of information.
  • Have entry systems, reception points, waiting and public meeting rooms and security barriers that people with communication or physical mobility difficulties (including British Sign Language users) can use easily.
  • Have loop systems installed in meeting spaces and receptions with screens.
  • Train staff in how to use loop systems.
  • Use visual alerting/intercom systems alongside audio.
  • Ensure adequate lighting in all areas (but not too bright as this can be challenging for people with neurodiversity – see below).
  • Make sure reception desks have a lowered section that is not obstructed.
  • Have automated doors that allow enough time to get through.
  • Put buttons to open doors/access lifts at a height suitable for wheelchair users and keep them free from obstruction to allow wheelchair users to access them.
  • Consider evacuation procedures for disabled people in the event of an emergency.  Wheelchair accessible fire exits should be clearly signposted and where there is more than one floor, safe areas with a means of communication should be provided.
  • Have a suitable number of accessible toilets. Facilities for changing disabled adults are also helpful.
  • Provide quiet, comfortable space for resting, and hold ‘quiet days’ (see below, under Neurodiversity).
  • Provide clear information on how to find/access the service alongside a variety of ways of contacting the organisation including email, phone, in writing, or in person (face to face) – through an advocate if necessary.
  • Ensure the organisation website is fully accessible and provide information in accessible and alternative formats (good use of colour and font, alternatives in audio/large print, ability to adjust settings such as dark mode, for example). See our guidance on accessible communications and alternative formats.
  • Provide access to British Sign Language interpreters and book these in advance for any meetings/events with Deaf clients/delegates.

Devon Countryside Access Forum has published a Disability Access Position Statement which provides guidance on making the outside environment accessible.

Always be aware that a person may have a ‘hidden disability’, may be trying to hide their disability for not wanting to stand out, or may have difficulties you are not familiar with.

Interactions are also important

When communicating:

  • Always speak to the person, NOT to the person they are with – if they are not able to reply their helper will.
  • Make eye contact with the person when you are talking to them if they are OK with this (they will look away if they find eye contact uncomfortable).
  • Speak clearly.
  • Don’t rush or crowd the person. Some people need more time and space.
  • If someone has a speech impairment, don’t try and finish their sentence for them; be patient.
  • If you are talking to someone with a hearing impairment, make sure that they have clear sight of your face as you speak.

People with learning disabilities and neuro-divergent people (see below) can find vague and complicated information difficult to understand. They may also take things literally, for example it would be better to say “sit down” instead of “take a seat”. Always use plain English and be direct and clear. Structure sentences well.


Neurodiversity recognises that we are all different. Neuro-divergent people have neurological (brain) functions which are different to the majority (known as neuro-typical). We often consider physical, learning and sensory disabilities when making adjustments but people with neurodivergence such as autistic people may find the following difficult:

  • Noisy and bright environments (‘strip lighting’ in particular is bad).
  • Change – this can be stressful, triggering a fight/flight/freeze response or other distressed behaviour. Little things can be a trigger. Autistic people have to plan more when visiting places. For example, they may expect the same parking space and can get stressed if they have to park in a different place. If making changes to layouts or systems, provide information online so people can prepare.
  • Interactions – some may be selective about who they want to speak to.
  • Having to ask someone for assistance. Self-service systems (that are easy to use) such as ordering something on an iPad or terminal can be helpful.
  • Listening to instruction, concentrating or understanding.
  • Waiting.

In autistic people, senses are often heightened (sound, touch, smell, taste, sight). This may mean they are selective about what they eat, sensitive to buzzing noises (for example, the buzzing of lights or air conditioning can be overwhelming), and sensitive to sensations like touching and wind, for example.

Autistic people may display repetitive behaviour or speech. They may like stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour like fiddling with an object), rocking and verbalising. They could also have difficulty interpreting or expressing feelings and may struggle with making or keeping friends.

Autistic people can often be articulate, so may come across as not having cognitive difficulties; it is therefore important to believe them if they say they are a disabled person/are autistic and need adjustments.

Autism is not a learning disability. People with a learning disability may also have autism but autistic people don’t always have a learning disability.

Creating ‘autistic friendly’ spaces can help neuro-divergent people be independent. It can include small adjustments like:

  • Lowering the lighting and removing noise such as background music and having a quiet space. This could be done on certain days of the week and advertised so people are aware when it’s an autism-friendly day.
  • Providing maps and pictures of how to get to and get around the building.
  • Pre-booking and pre-ordering systems.
  • Training staff. If someone displays distressed behaviour: be compassionate and help diffuse the situation by removing the thing that is causing distress. Don’t touch someone in distress or tell them what to do.

Further guidance can be downloaded from Dimensions for Autism.

ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is another type of neurodiversity. ADHD may mean a person is more impulsive and has a lower sense of danger. They may come across as impatient, easily distracted, disorganised and forgetful, restless and fidgety, or say things that are inappropriate or insensitive. They may have a low-self esteem or be hyper-sensitive (and appear to ‘over-react’ to something that people without ADHD would find acceptable). ADHD can also trigger emotional and mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression. Like Autism, ADHD traits can vary from person to person.

Reminders, planners and organisers alongside plenty of opportunity for exercise can help a neuro-divergent person with ADHD.

And as with all neurodiversity, patience and support rather than criticism can go a long way.

Deaf Sign Language users

Deaf people (with a capital D) who use Sign Language as a means of communication will need information in this format (usually British Sign Language). Some basic information may be provided in Easy Read (words and pictures) but conversations and more complex information will probably need to be interpreted (face to face, or via video link if suitable), or translated (into a BSL video). For the majority of Deaf people, English is a second language and access to the wide range of information that hearing people take for granted is limited. The County Council uses the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language Charter to check it is meeting the needs of Deaf people and encourages other organisations to do the same. Note that Deaf people view their deafness and language as their culture rather than a disability, but under the Equality Act it is recognised only as a disability.

Not all disabilities are visible

In fact, although the wheelchair symbol is widely used to represent disability, many people live with disabilities without the use of an assistive device such as a wheelchair, walking cane or hearing aid. Many long term health conditions and sensory impairments are ‘hidden’ – meaning it won’t be obvious to an on-looker that a person has a disability. These can include conditions such as: Fibromyalgia, ME, Crohn’s disease, Diabetes and Epilepsy. Living with conditions can include coping with widespread and/or constant pain, fatigue and anxiety. People may need to take regular breaks, medication, have somewhere comfortable to rest, and moderate diet and other aspects of life. Fluctuations in conditions can mean a person may appear okay one day but be struggling the next.

It’s important to be aware of hidden disabilities and show understanding and flexibility. This includes not assuming or accusing people of lying, being lazy or wrongly using facilities such as disabled parking bays and accessible toilets. Accessible toilets are not solely for wheelchair users (despite the sign), someone without a wheelchair may need to use the handrail or extra space due to a hidden disability.

There is a growing number of people living with dementia. Living with dementia can be made easier by making a few changes to the environment. Like with all disabilities, having staff who are trained and providing good, compassionate customer service goes a long way! The following help people with dementia get out and about: quiet places to stop and sit (a carer can talk about what’s around them) and access to a toilet. Give similar considerations to those for people with neuro-diversity. Barriers for people with dementia can include: large mirrors (these will appear as other people), and confusing floor patterns – for example, a dark mat on a pale floor could look like a big hole in the ground; both of these can be frightening.

If you are uncertain and don’t know what to say or do, be honest and just ask! It’s OK!

One final note on vulnerability

Disabled people, particularly those with learning disability or mental illness, can be vulnerable to exploitation including ‘mate crime’ (where a so-called friend takes financial advantage of them), modern slavery (having to do work for little or no pay) and cuckooing (where a criminal, typically a drug dealer, uses a vulnerable person’s home as their base). If you are concerned, please contact Adults Safeguarding.

Disability Equality Checklist

  • Is the environment accessible to all?
  • Can someone in a wheelchair get around?
  • Can disabled people use equipment or access furniture?
  • Can people with sensory disability, learning disability or neurodiversity access communications/information?
  • Is information clear and in plain English?
  • Does language or imagery used in communications reflect diversity and reduce stereotypes?
  • Can a disabled person get to the venue easily? Consider ability to use public transport/access to own car, and provision of disabled parking bays.
  • Is there potential for anxiety caused by a situation?
  • Will they need to know about a change in advance?
  • Will it be too noisy, bright, busy….?
  • Has the involvement of carers and assistance dogs been taken into account?
  • To what extend do you encourage independence?
  • There may be a need to take medication or breaks/quiet rest or respond to changes in condition – can this be accommodated?
  • Will there be flexible visiting times for people who are housebound? Don’t just assume that because someone is always at home they are always available, for example some people may place high importance on being able to watch a favourite television programme and will not be available!
  • Will dietary or other access needs be catered for? Consider food allergies, intolerance or diabetes e.g. nut free, wheat free, lactose free and sugar free options available if serving food?   Clear food labelling.
  • Consider compounding barriers if in a ‘minority’ group such as being prone to prejudice, rural isolation and the ability to source support, extent of involvement in community life, trust and confidence in public services or other people.
  • Do disabled groups have equal access to the service or benefits?  What evidence do you have? Are there any barriers to participation e.g. low numbers compared to the population?
  • Other factors that are relevant to your service:

…what reasonable adjustments can be made? Are there opportunities to ask people about disability related needs?

It is good practice to publish clear accessibility information about venues. As an example, you could include information about the following features:

  • Public transport nearby
  • Disabled parking bays
  • Ramped/level access (via main entrance)
  • Ramped/level access (via alternative entrance)
  • Visitors must report to reception
  • Ground floor room
  • Lift access to room
  • Accessible toilet (same floor)
  • Accessible toilet (within building)
  • Loop system
  • Automated doors
  • Manual doors
  • The room has strip lighting
  • Large venue/site – please allow some time to get to the room.
  • Café/food can be purchased on site (accessible location).
  • Seating in reception/waiting areas
  • Rest areas.
  • This venue is not accessible to disabled people, please contact [details] so that an alternative venue can be found.

It is also helpful to publish pictures of the venue and rooms, and a site map, on a website.

You may need to provide further assistance or adjustments for disabled visitors/service users such as meeting them on arrival and helping them get around a site to access a meeting room if there are lots of doors, or arranging to meet elsewhere. If you are unfamiliar with the location of a venue and have disabled people attending, it is a good idea to visit the place and check it out from the perspective of a disabled person.

See also our Checklist for Events.