Severe Obesity may be a Disability

Dec 22, 2014

Advocate General Jääskinen has given his opinion on the extent to which EU law protects obese workers from discrimination. He found that there is no general principle of EU law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of obesity.

A British Man weighing 21 stone who was dismissed after spending seven years absent from work has just won his appeal as the High Court ruled that obesity could be classified as a disability. Mr Walker spent seven years on sickness absence, with health problems linked to his size such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue and knee problems.

His case echoes the recent ruling by the European Courts of Justice; that although obesity itself was not deemed to be a disability protected under EU laws, it could be disabling in its effects.

Just five days earlier, The European Court of Justice was asked to consider the case of a male child-minder in Denmark who says he was dismissed for being too fat.

The case centres on child-minder Karsten Kaltoft who weighs about 160kg (25 stone).

He brought a discrimination case against his employers of 15 years, Billund local authority, after he was dismissed four years previously. The authority said that a fall in the number of children meant Mr Kaltoft’s services were no longer required, however Mr Kaltoft maintained that he was dismissed because he was overweight.

The Danish courts asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to clarify whether obesity was a disability. The ECJ ruled that if the obesity of the worker "hinders the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers", then obesity can fall within the concept of "disability".

Given the ruling in the English courts earlier this week, employers must, on a case by case basis, make reasonable adjustments such as providing larger chairs or special car parking, and protect such employees from verbal harassment.

But there are wider implications. Providers of goods and services such as shops, cinemas and restaurants will also have to make reasonable adjustments for their customers, which might include things like special seating arrangements.

The key here is that adjustments must be ‘reasonable’. It would be unreasonable for example, for a small business on the 10
th floor of a building with no lift to relocate so as to accommodate for one person who may struggle in climbing the stairs.

If you are concerned that you are being discriminated against because of a disability or if as an employer you want to re-evaluate your policies, get in touch with a member of the Employment Team on 01279 755777.

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