This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

Equality of Access Works to Listed Buildings and Other Heritage Assets

Legislation that promotes equality of access to public services can mean that changes are needed to heritage assets.

The Equality Act 2010 (1) places duties on all organisations that provide a service to the public or a section of the public, as well as anyone that sells goods or provides facilities in Great Britain (‘Service Providers’). It applies to all services, whether or not a charge is made for them.

It also applies to private clubs and other associations with 25 or more members, that have rules about membership and select their members.

The Equality Act protects anyone who has a protected characteristic, which includes age, disability, gender re-assignment, marriage, civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. The Act also protects people from being discriminated against and harassed because of a characteristic they do not personally have. For example, it protects people who are mistakenly perceived to be disabled. It also protects a person from being treated less favourably because they are linked or associated with a disabled person.

It is important in principle that everyone should have dignified access to and within historic buildings to which the Act applies. If treated as part of an integrated review of access arrangements for all visitors or users and a flexible and pragmatic approach is taken, it should normally be possible to plan suitable access for disabled people or others with a protected characteristics without compromising a building’s special interest. Alternative routes or reorganising the use of space may achieve the desired result without the need for damaging alterations.

The Equality Act does not override other legislation such as listed building or planning legislation, and the need to consider necessary consents applies to changes proposed to improve access. Clearly so far as planning is concerned the main issue will be disability discrimination and this is set out below in more detail.

Meaning of disability

Disability has a broad meaning. It is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.


Under the Equalities Act there are three main forms of disability discrimination.

1. Direct Discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs where, because of disability or other protected characteristic, a person receives worse treatment than someone who does not have a disability. This provision is intended to stop people being denied a service, or receiving a worse service, because of prejudice.

2. Discrimination Arising from Disability

Discrimination arising from disability occurs when a disabled person is treated unfavourably because of something connected with their disability and the unfavourable treatment cannot be justified.

This is different from direct discrimination. Direct discrimination occurs when a service provider treats someone less favourably because of the characteristic itself.

In the case of discrimination arising from disability, the question is whether the person has in practice been treated unfavourably because of something connected with their characteristic or that of someone associated with them.  This type of discrimination is unlawful where the Service Provider or other person acting for the service provider knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability.

This type of discrimination is only justifiable if a Service Provider can show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

3. Indirect Discrimination

Indirect disability discrimination happens when there is a rule, a policy or a practice that applies to everyone, but which particularly disadvantages people with a particular disability or other protected characteristic compared with people who do not have that characteristic, and it cannot be shown to be justified as being intended to meet a legitimate objective in a fair, balanced and reasonable way.

Substantial disadvantage

Every Service Provider must ask itself whether:

  • the way it does things;
  • any physical feature at its premises; or
  • the absence of an auxiliary aid or service

puts disabled people or others with a protected characteristic at a substantial disadvantage compared with people who do not have that characteristic.

Anything that is more than minor or trivial is a substantial disadvantage. If a substantial disadvantage does exist, then the duty to make reasonable adjustments arises.

The aim of the adjustments required of a Service Provider is to remove the substantial disadvantage. Service Providers are only, however required to make adjustments that are reasonable for it to make.

Reasonable adjustments

Where there is a substantial disadvantage reasonable adjustments may need to be made to the way things are done (such as changing a policy), to the built environment (such as making changes to the structure of a building to improve access) and to provide auxiliary aids and services (such as providing information in an accessible format, an induction loop for customers with hearing aids, special computer software or additional staff support when using a service).

When deciding whether an adjustment is reasonable a service provider can consider amongst other things:

  • how effective the change will be in assisting disabled people in general or a particular customer, client, service user or member;
  • whether it can actually be done;
  • the cost; and
  • the organisation’s resources and size.

The overall aim should be, as far as reasonably possible, to remove any disadvantage faced by disabled people. The easier an adjustment is, the more likely it is to be reasonable. However, just because something is difficult does not mean it cannot be reasonable. This needs to be balanced against other factors.

What is reasonable will depend on all the circumstances, including the cost of an adjustment, the potential benefit it might bring to other customers (ramps and automatic doors benefit customers with small children or heavy luggage, for example), the resources an organisation has and how practical the changes are.

Examples of reasonable adjustments include:

  • installing an induction loop for people who are hearing impaired;
  • giving the option to book tickets by email as well as by phone;
  • providing disability awareness training for staff who have contact with  the public;
  • providing larger, well-defined signage for people with impaired vision; and
  • putting in a ramp at the entrance to a building as well as steps.

The Equality Act requires that Service Providers must think ahead and take steps to address barriers that impede disabled people.

In doing this, it is a good idea to consider the range of disabilities that actual or potential service users might have. Service Providers should not wait until a disabled person experiences difficulties using a service, as this may make it too late to make the necessary adjustment.


(1) Equality Act 2010

Was this page helpful?

Related publications