Being disabled in Britain: a journey less equal

It is a badge of shame on our society that millions of disabled people in Britain are still not being treated as equal citizens and continue to be denied the everyday rights non-disabled people take for granted, such as being able to access transport, appropriate health services and housing, or benefit from education and employment. The disability pay gap is persistent and widening, access to justice has deteriorated, and welfare reforms have significantly affected the already low living standards of disabled people. It is essential that as a society we recognise and address these structural problems urgently and comprehensively. We are calling for a new national focus on disability rights, so that disabled people are no longer treated as ‘second-class citizens’.

We present the key equality and human rights challenges for all protected characteristic groups in Britain, and conclude that greater effort is needed to identify the scale and nature of the issues affecting disabled people.


Disabled people across Britain are less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.

Despite an increase in the proportion of both disabled and non-disabled adults in employment in Britain in 2015/16, less than half of disabled adults were in employment (47.6%), compared with almost 80% of the non-disabled adult population, and the gap between these groups has widened since 2010/11.

The disability pay gap in Britain continues to widen. In 2015-16 there was a gap in median hourly earnings: disabled people earned £9.85 compared with £11.41 for non-disabled people. Disabled young people (age 16-24) and disabled women had the lowest median hourly earnings.

Very low numbers of disabled people are taking up apprenticeships, and there has been little improvement in that situation in England and Wales, although Scotland has seen a slight improvement.

Standard of living

More disabled people than non-disabled are living in poverty or are materially deprived

Across the UK, 18.4% of disabled people aged 16-64 were considered to be in food poverty in 2014 compared with just 7.5% of non-disabled people. Disabled people over the age of 65 were twice as likely as non-disabled people in the same age group to be in food poverty: 6.8% compared with 3.3%.

Disabled people face problems in finding adequate housing and this is a major barrier to independent living. There is a shortage of accessible housing across Britain: of councils in England with a housing plan, fewer than 17% have set out strategies to build disabled friendly homes.

Health and care

Disabled people are more likely to experience health inequalities and major health conditions, and are likely to die younger than other people.

On average, men with mental health conditions die 20 years earlier than the general population, and women 13 years earlier.

‘Do not attempt resuscitation’ (DNAR) notices are being placed on patients’ files without their consent or knowledge.

Action is needed to reduce the use of physical and chemical restraint for the purposes of behaviour management in hospital and care settings.


Justice and detention

Disabled people in Britain are more likely to have experienced crime than non-disabled people.

Disability hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales increased by 44% in 2015/16 on the previous year.

Changes to legal aid in England and Wales have negatively affected disabled people’s access to justice in family law, housing, employment, debt and welfare benefits cases.

Participation and identity

Disabled people continue to encounter barriers to exercising their right to vote.

Poor access to transport, leisure and other services can affect the community and social life of disabled people, creating a barrier to independence and their enjoyment of day-to-day activities.

The wide gap in internet usage between disabled and non-disabled people has persisted. The law leaves a degree of interpretation for service providers about how far they are required to go to increase digital accessibility and there is as yet no UK case law precedent on web accessibility to clarify the position.

Negative attitudes towards disabled people remain prominent in Britain, and people with a mental health condition, learning disability or memory impairment remain particularly likely to be stigmatised. Measures of disability prejudice have focused largely on disability as a general category.


We recommend that the UK and devolved governments take concerted action to:

1. Reduce educational attainment and employment gaps  for disabled people.

2. Ensure that essential services, such as housing, health, transport and justice, meet the particular needs of disabled people and support their independence and wellbeing.

3. Promote the inclusion and participation of disabled people in civic and political life.

4. Strengthen disabled people’s choice, autonomy and control over decisions and services.

5. Improve existing legislation, policies, frameworks and action plans to better protect and promote the rights of disabled people.

6. Improve the evidence base on the experiences and outcomes of disabled people and the ability to assess how fair Britain is for all disabled people.


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