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Unsure of your equality rights or the law? We can provide advice and assistance for people who feel they have been discriminated against.


Education service

Have I been discriminated against because of my disability?

If you have been treated unfairly on disability grounds, this may be unlawful discrimination.

Disability is defined as:

“a physical or mental impairment which has substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”

Long-term means: lasting, or likely to last, at least 12 months.  Normal day-to-day activities include:

  • Mobility – moving from place to place
  • Manual dexterity – use of hands, wrists or fingers
  • Physical co-ordination
  • Continence
  • Ability to lift, carry or otherwise move ordinary objects
  • Speech, hearing or eyesight
  • Memory or ability to concentrate
  • Ability to learn or understand
  • Ability to recognise the risk of physical danger
  • Taking part in normal social interaction
  • Forming social relationships


You can challenge unfair treatment in education if, as a result of your disability, you:

  • are treated worse than another potential, present or former student in a similar situation
  • find it difficult to access education or associated services because reasonable changes have not been made.


Your rights also apply if you have had a disability in the past.  For example:  If you were disabled by mental ill health in the past but are now fully recovered you can challenge unfair treatment under disability discrimination law.

What is covered?

Schools, further education colleges, universities and bodies responsible for educational establishments such as the Education Authority, Boards of Governors, CCMS, are all included.

Is all disability discrimination the same?

No. There are different types of disability discrimination, and it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful. The main forms are:


Direct discrimination is where you are treated worse than others, on grounds of your disability, when an education or associated services provider:

  • Refuses or deliberately fails to provide a service;
  • Provides a service of a lower quality, in a worse manner or on worse terms than is normally the case.

For example:  A secondary school is arranging work experience placements for its students.  Two years ago, a student experienced a period of depression lasting 18 months, during which he attempted suicide.  The school decided that a placement would be too stressful for the student and did not arrange a placement for him.


Reasonable adjustment is specific to disability discrimination law.  Education and associated services provider need to consider all requirements and remove any barriers, physical or otherwise, that could make it difficult for you to undertake a course of study.

For example:  A student with a visual impairment is following a distance learning course administrated by a local university.  She sends her essays electronically but receives marked essays by post with handwritten comments in the margin that she is unable to read.

Harassment in schools is not specifically included in the law, but such a complaint can be made under the direct discrimination provisions. Harassment in institutions of further and higher education is included in the law and it is where a person behaves in a way, on disability grounds, which violates your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

For example:  A student with a disability went to the college’s canteen every lunch time, but recently a group of non-disabled students regularly made fun of her and stole her food.  She was left feeling intimidated and stopped going to the canteen and instead eats her lunch in the corridor.


Victimisation is where you have made a complaint of disability discrimination or helped someone else make a complaint about an education or associated services provider under the special educational needs and disability discrimination law, and suffered as a result.

For example:  A non-disabled student acts as a witness in a complaint by a disabled student against a teacher and after investigation of the matter the Principal upholds the disabled student’s complaint.  Afterwards, the non-disabled student finds that her homework grades in the subject taught by this teacher are consistently lower than is usual for her.


How am I protected against disability discrimination?

You are protected from disability discrimination in the provision of education and associated services whether they are paid for or free. They include:

  • Schools

Provision of education:
- admission arrangements
- timetabling / homework
- assessment and exam arrangements
- school discipline and sanctions
- suspension / expulsion procedures
- work experience
- preparation for the next phase of education

Associated services:
- access to school facilities / clubs / activities and trips

  • Institutions of Further and Higher Education

    - Universities
    - Colleges
    - Teacher training
    - Agricultural colleges

    Provision of education:
    - Training courses and distance learning – day and evening
    - Careers advice and graduation ceremonies
    - Curriculum design, examinations and assessments
    - Arranging study abroad or work placements

    Associated services:
    - Leisure, recreation, entertainment and sports facilities
    - Catering and child care facilities
    - Campus or college owned shops and car parking
    - Residential accommodation
    - Financial advice and welfare services
  • General qualifications bodies:

- Provision of extra time or assistance in examinations
- Granting exemptions


However, there are limited circumstances where special educational needs and disability discrimination is allowed.

  • Schools are not required to provide auxiliary aids and services* or disabled students without an identified Special Educational Need (SEN**).
(*the provision of a special piece of equipment or simply extra assistance to disabled students from specially trained staff.  **SEN - when a student has significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of students and the education provider make a formal statement identifying the student’s needs and the full range of provision required to ensure participation in education)
  • When it is necessary to maintain academic standards.

What are my options?

What can I do myself?

1. Contact our discrimination advice officers who will provide you with free and confidential information and guidance.  Should you decide to take your case to court, you can ask for us to provide legal representation.

2. Raise your complaint directly with the education body or vocational training provider and seek a resolution.

3. Go directly to court or tribunal with your own legal representative to lodge a complaint of discrimination.


a. There is a special tribunal called SENDIST which deals with disability complaints against schools
b. Complaints against institutions of further and higher education are heard in a county court.

4. For complaints against expulsion in grant aided schools contact the Education Authority expulsions appeals tribunal.

How can the Equality Commission help me?

1. We provide advice and assistance.

2. We provide legal representation in a limited number of cases.

Only a tribunal/court decides whether the treatment you have complained of is unlawful discrimination. It is separate to, and independent from, the Equality Commission.

Contact us
If you require assistance or would like to make a discrimination complaint, complete our
online form or telephone 028 90 500 600.


Useful publications


Time limits apply

There are strict time limits for taking a case of special educational needs and disability discrimination. Complaints relating to education and associated services providers must be made to the tribunal or court within six months of the discriminatory act.

For expulsions in grant aided schools the time limit is ten days from the act.

Even if you are attempting to resolve problems, the statutory time limits still apply.  You may wish to issue proceedings to protect your legal interests if the matter has not resolved close to the expiry of the time limit.

If your time limit has expired the tribunal has discretion to extend the time for you to lodge your claim; this is used sparingly and it is unwise to assume that an extension will be granted.

< Education service problem
Ask for advice
If you require information or advice please complete our online form. All information you submit is confidential – and if you wish to be contacted by us, please let us know the best way for you. You don’t have to share any personal information with us – we will not be able to identify you if that is your preference.

Make a discrimination complaint
We may be able to provide you with legal assistance. If you want to find out more, please use our discrimination complaint form to tell us the nature of your discrimination complaint and whether it is related to your age, disability, gender, race, religious belief/political opinion or sexual orientation.

Tell us what happened and we will contact you to talk through your complaint further.

Equality Commission NI
Alternatively, contact us:

Telephone: 028 90 500 600

Equality House
7-9 Shaftesbury Square
Belfast  BT2 7DP

We have listed below current legislation relevant to disability discrimination. You should note that equality and anti-discrimination law may be changed or updated. The law is also complex and can require interpretation. Please feel free to contact our discrimination advice team if you need clarification or guidance on what the law means. Email: or tel: 028 90 500 600.

Disability Discrimination Laws

Main law for employment, goods, facilities, services and disposal of premises



Main amending/supplementary laws:

Other amending/supplementary laws:

Main law for Education:

Amending/supplementary laws:


Sam's story
Sam’s parents v Portora Royal School

Sam is 14, has a visual impairment and dyslexia, and attends Portora Royal School. He has a Statement of Special Educational Needs which commenced in 2002 and was updated in 2006.

In March 2012 the WELB Learning Support Service (Vision) concluded that as a result of Sam’s visual impairment his glasses did not fully correct his vision.They recommended that the School implement a number of strategies to ensure that he had equality of access to lessons.

Sam’s parents alleged that there was persistent difficulty with the policies and practices of the school and it had not made
reasonable adjustments appropriate to Sam’s needs.

They brought proceedings on Sam’s behalf to the Special Educational Needs and Disability tribunal. 

In February 2013 the case settled with terms that included the School agreeing to:
  • consider Sam’s updated educational psychologist assessment in regard to his requirement for additional  time in examinations
  • provide Sam with any available planned resources in the appropriate format in time for the relevant lesson and  having Sam’s classroom assistant take any additional notes

Read more of our case decisions and settlements
A student's story
A student v Belfast Metropolitan College

A 41 year old male student with HIV complained to the County Court of less favourable treatment when undertaking a diploma in Indian Head Message.  The student had informed his tutor of his HIV status as he was concerned that the side effects of his treatment would impact on class attendance rules.  He had already missed classes due to the side effects of his medication.  After disclosing that he had HIV he alleged that he began to experience negative behaviour and feedback from his tutor.  

Although he was ultimately awarded his diploma he believed that he had been treated badly because of his disability.

The case was settled on terms that included the college agreeing to:
  • acknowledge that the student had brought his claim in good faith
  • check the student’s portfolio and evaluate and sign all pieces of course work
  • amend the spelling of his name in the diploma documents to the correct spelling
  • engage in disability awareness training through the Equality Commission and in addition contact the HIV Support Centre to engage in specific training in respect of HIV
  • refund the student’s fees for the year 2008-2009.

Read more of our case decisions and settlements
A 6 year old child's story
A 6 year old child v Kirkinriola Primary School

X is 6, her sight is very significantly impaired and she also has colour dysfunction.  She started Kirkinriola mainstream primary school in September 2007. Jordanstown School Advisory Service had provided the school principal with a detailed report on X and made a number of recommendations.

X’s parents complained unsuccessfully to the Board of Govenors that the school was not implementing the recommendations in the Jordanstown report.  They subsequently brought proceedings on her behalf to the Special Educational Needs and Disability tribunal. 

The case was settled in 2008 on terms that included the school agreeing to:
  • abide by the written guidelines provided by Jordanstown Advisory Service and disseminating it to all relevant staff
  • affirm its commitment to the principle of equality of access to education
  • meet with the Equality Commission to review and update its policies, practices and procedures 
  • provide disability awareness training and training on the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 and Disability Discrimination Code of Practice for Schools and the Supplement to it, to all necessary staff and representatives of the Board of Governors.

Read more of our case decisions and settlements

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