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Disability discrimination when accessing and using health services

This advice applies to England

Healthcare providers, like hospitals and private clinics, must make sure their services are accessible to disabled people. They also have a duty not to discriminate against you because of your disability.

Read this page to find out more about discrimination and accessing health services when you’re disabled.

Have you been discriminated against?

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the civil courts.

If you think you've been discriminated against when using health services, you should check whether the discrimination is unlawful.

You can follow these steps to check whether unlawful discrimination has taken place:

  • why you are being treated unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's for certain reasons
  • who is treating you unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's carried out by certain people
  • what kind of behaviour has taken place - only certain types of unfair treatment count as unlawful discrimination
  • how is the treatment unfair - you need to identify what kind of discrimination the unfair treatment could be.

Why are you being treated unfairly?

If you're treated unfairly because of your disability, it's unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

Who is treating you unfairly?

All healthcare providers have a duty not to discriminate against you. This includes medical staff, such as consultants, doctors and nurses. It also includes non-medical staff, like receptionists.

Examples of unlawful discrimination

You find it difficult to access health services because you're disabled

Healthcare providers must remove barriers disabled people face when accessing their services, unless it's unreasonable to do so. The Equality Act calls this the duty to make reasonable adjustments. If a healthcare provider hasn't made reasonable adjustments or changes, it’s unlawful discrimination.

Here are examples of reasonable adjustments:

  • providing information in Braille and large print
  • installing automatic doors or ramps and accessible toilet facilities
  • changing the way appointments are made
  • giving you longer appointments or at a time where there are fewer people around
  • taking extra time to explain things to you.

You've been restrained because of your mental health condition

Healthcare providers must consider what reasonable adjustments they need to make to ensure people with a mental health condition are not disadvantaged when using health services. This includes ways to deal with patients with challenging or aggressive behaviour .

If you've been restrained because of your behaviour, this might be unlawful discrimination if the healthcare provider has not met with their duty to make reasonable adjustments.

For example, healthcare providers should ensure they have enough staff on duty to deal with patients with challenging behaviour. The environment of the hospital is also important and healthcare providers may be required to adapt the ward conditions to avoid patients becoming stressed. If you've been restrained you may also have a human rights claim.

You’ve not received adequate medical treatment

You may not have been properly consulted about your health needs and possible treatments because of prejudice or wrong ideas about your disability. Sometimes, health professionals don't give enough attention to your physical health problems if you have a learning disability or a mental health condition.

If you've not received adequate medical treatment because you're disabled, it's direct discrimination under the Equality Act. You're treated differently and worse than someone else because of your disability which is a protected characteristic.

If the reason you've received worse treatment is because of something connected to your disability rather than the disability itself, it's discrimination arising from a disability.

Example

You have a learning disability which means you find it difficult to understand things. You need an operation which carries some risks. You’ve been asked to sign a consent form which you don't really understand. No one has taken the necessary time to explain it to you. Because you’ve not been able to give informed consent to the operation, you've suffered a disadvantage.

This is discrimination arising from a disability. It’s because of your difficulties understanding things, which is connected to your disability. This is also a failure to make reasonable adjustments, as the healthcare provider who should have taken the time to make sure you understood the information.

You've been refused treatment because you're disabled

If you've been refused medical treatment because you're disabled, it's direct discrimination under the Equality Act. Direct discrimination is where you're treated differently and worse than someone else because of a protected characteristic.

Example

You have a learning disability and you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Your doctors have decided not to give you a lifesaving treatment, even though they would have given this to someone in your situation who's not disabled. They’ve not tried talking to you about your wishes, because they think you wouldn’t understand or be able to make a decision.

This is worse treatment because of your disability. It’s direct discrimination and is unlawful. This could also be a breach of your human rights.

Human Rights

If you’ve been refused, or received inadequate treatment by the NHS, this could also be a breach of your human rights. You can use human rights law to make your discrimination case stronger or you can make a separate human rights claim.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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