Is Obesity a Disability?

Last week the European Court of Justice ("ECJ") was invited to consider whether obesity is a disability. 

In the context of a recent survey which states that 64% of adults in the UK are classified as being overweight or obese, such a finding in likely to have considerable impact upon the workplace.

The case before the ECJ was brought by Karsten Kaltoft a Danish child minder against his employer a local authority.

Kaltoft was dismissed by his employer because it was argued, given his weight, 158kg or 25 stone, he could not fulfil his duties.  One example that was given was that he could not tie children's shoelaces without assistance from a colleague.  The European Court determined that obesity was not a protected characteristic per se under the Equal Treatment Directive but went on to conclude that where the condition of obesity "hinders full participation in professional life on an equal footing with other employees due to the physical and/or psychological limitations that it entails, then it can be considered to be a disability. 

This thinking is in line with the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Limited in the Employment Appeals Tribunal which concluded that whilst obesity does not of itself render a person to be disabled but some of the impairments arising may cause an individual to be considered to be disabled. 

In short, therefore, it was the impairment rather than the cause which fell to be considered and the example given was that of liver disease caused by alcohol dependency.  Whilst alcoholism is expressly not a disability under discrimination law, liver disease would qualify as a physical impairment giving rise to a potential disability.

An employer would be well advised to consider the duty placed upon them to make reasonable adjustments, such adjustments could include modification to chairs and desks, adjustments to work stations and even access arrangements to the office generally, toilets and the canteen and of course car parking as mobility may well be an issue.   

Posted on: 23/07/2014

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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