Is Obesity a disability?

Jun 12, 2014

Should people classified as overweight or obese, benefit from the same protection from discrimination law as those with physical or mental disabilities? A landmark Danish case being brought to the European Court of Justice today could set a precedent in all EU states.

The case is brought by Karsten Kaltoft against a Danish Council, Billund Kommune. Mr Kaltoft was dismissed from his position as a child minder for the Council, because he was deemed unable to perform his duties as he was overweight. Mr Kaltoft weighed approximately 25 stone and needed assistance from colleagues in various aspects of his role, for example, it is reported that he was unable to tie up children’s shoe laces unaided. Mr Kaltoft has argued that his obesity should be classed as a disability, making his dismissal discriminatory.

Discrimination law in the UK is currently governed by the Equality Act 2010, which defines a ‘disability’ as a ‘physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities’. Current UK law has already made clear that obesity is not classed as a disability under this definition.

However, the European Court of Justice’s judgments are binding on all member states and if Mr Kaltoft is successful in redefining obesity as a disability, there could be significant changes in the way employers will be expected to deal with obese members of staff.

As such, employees who are obese would have to be treated exactly the same as employees who have physical or mental disabilities, and employers would also be expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for such employees within the workplace. This could include, for example, providing larger seating and equipment, or allowing obese members of staff to work on lower levels to avoid the need to walk up stairs etc.

Given that within the UK, 64% of adults are considered ‘obese’, this could have a substantial impact on UK employers and employment practices.


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