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Can Obesity be counted as a disability?

Updated: Feb 16

Obesity is a feature of today’s society, like it or not and will affect employers who find that members of their workforce fall into this group. But what should employers do to avoid accusations of discrimination against obese employees? Find out in our article.

In certain circumstances, obesity can be treated as a disability, the European Court of Justice has ruled. The ruling was made in the case of a Danish male childminder who claimed that he had been dismissed for being too overweight.

The case relates to Karsten Kaltoft, who had been employed by Billund local authority in Denmark for fifteen years. Four years ago, he was dismissed when the local authority said that a reduction in the number of children meant that his services were no longer required.

Kaltoft brought a discrimination case, claiming that his dismissal was to do with his weight.

The local authority admitted that the issue was mentioned during a meeting but denied that it was a factor in considering his dismissal.

After the case progressed through the Danish court system, judges passed the matter to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether Kaltoft’s obesity could be classified as a disability.

The ECJ pointed out that the Employment Equality Directive did not include obesity as a ground for discrimination and the scope of the directive should not go further than the grounds listed in the judgement, which said that if obesity hindered employees from full participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers on the grounds of reduced mobility or the onset of medical conditions preventing that person from carrying out work or causing discomfort when exercising professional activity, then that could count as a disability.

In addition, said the Court, making the application of the directive dependent on the origin of the disability would run counter to its aim. This means that as far as EU equality law goes, the cause of the obesity is irrelevant to its classification as a disability.

Rulings from the European Court of Justice are binding for all EU member nations. The case has now been referred back to the Danish courts, which will assess Kaltoft’s weight to see if his case can be counted as a disability.

The implications of the case are that employers may have to start making assessments, on a case by case basis of the requirements of employees and make reasonable adjustments such as providing larger chairs, special car parking and protecting obese employees from verbal harassment. This could include making reasonable adjustments to working arrangements, seating arrangements or making access to the office easier.

It is worth noting that the ruling does not change UK law, but merely states that the effects of obesity can be treated as a disability. Thus, an obese person who is otherwise healthy will not be able to claim that their weight constituted a disability; however, if it causes health problems, such as problems with joints, depression, high blood pressure or diabetes, then those will count as disability for the purposes of equality legislation. The wording of the ECJ’s judgement is also significant in that it specifies ‘professional life’ and is therefore unlikely to apply in cases where the provision of goods or services in an individual’s private life is the case.

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