The European Union Court of Justice has recently determined that, in certain circumstances, obesity may be regarded a disability in the employment context.
The case in question concerned a Danish overweight childcare worker who instigated a discrimination claim against his employers following his dismissal. The claimant said he was dismissed because of his weight whereas the employer contended it was due to reduced demand for child care services.
The Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of obesity, of itself, was not unlawful. However, where obesity leads to some other condition –depression for example – the employee’s obesity may fall within the concept of disability as the terms is understood in the relevant EU directive.
So, where an individual’s obesity affects that person’s participation in working life by way of reduced mobility, for example, preventing that person from carrying out their duties or causing discomfort when engaging in work then the individual may be disabled person for the purposes of the EU directive. Arguably, the real issue is the way the obesity affects the person, rather the fact that the person is obese.
This decision does not alter UK law in respect of the issue as to whether someone is disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, the relevant local legislation. To satisfy the requirements of disability discrimination legislation a person still needs to be able to prove that he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a material adverse impact on his or her ability to perform their everyday duties and which is sufficiently long term (i.e., having lasted or likely to last at least twelve months). In essence, the European Court has determined that obesity itself is not a disability, but instead that its effects can result in a person being disabled for the purposes of the relevant disability discrimination laws. If a person’s obesity results in a specific adverse condition– such as, for example, a problem with mobility, or depression – then the Equality Act 2010 may be triggered, depending on the particular circumstances.
In general terms, employers should appreciate that an employee’s obesity may result in the person being deemed to be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act. This could enliven the duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for the employee. These could concern issues of access to the work place, seating and other logistical arrangements which relate to the discharge of the employee’s function.
Whether the legislation applies in a particular situation will require careful scrutiny. However, as a matter of generality, it would pay for responsible managers of people to put this issue “on the radar”. Careful managers will think ahead about employees who might potentially attempt to claim they are disabled at some time in the future.