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Is Obesity a Disability?

Obesity and disability

Issue

If an employee is physically obese will they be automatically protected in the workplace as being ‘disabled’? The question was posed to the European Court of Justice in the Danish case of Karsten Kaltoft v Kommunernes v Landsforening, acting on behalf of the Municipality of Billund was whether the European Equal Treatment Directive would require such protection be given.

Facts

Mr Kaltoft had claimed that he had been dismissed from his position as a child minder because of his size. He brought proceedings in the Danish court that obesity should be regarded as a disability and that his dismissal amounted to unlawful discrimination. In support of his claim he referred to the World Health Organisation’s classification of his Body Mass Index which meant that he fell into the category of suffering from ‘severe, extreme or morbid obesity’. The Danish Court referred the issue to the European Court of Justice

Decision

It was held that obesity, by itself, was not covered by the Directive but the impact of obesity could amount to a disability. The focus should be on whether the obesity hindered the employee’s full and effective participation in working life. An obese person may be disabled, for example, if they had reduced mobility or related medical conditions prevented them from carrying out their work or caused them discomfort when carrying out their professional activity.

Comment

In the judgment it was stressed that the origins of a disability were irrelevant. It considered that to define a disability by reference to its origin would undermine the aim of implementing equal treatment. So the fact that somebody may have contributed to their own obesity will be completely irrelevant. The question of whether it is a ‘disability’ will be down to the effects that obesity has on the individual employee. It follows that being obese may make it more likely that an individual has a disability.

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