Obesity – A New Disability?
Employers are being urged to take note of a recent EU court ruling which established a precedent that in severe cases, obesity may constitute a disability. Whilst the decision by the EU court of justice in Luxemburg related to a Danish case, the ruling may affect employment rights in the UK and across Europe.
The case in question was that of Karsten Kaltoft, a Danish childminder weighing approximately 25 stone, who brought a discrimination case against his employers, Billund local authority after he was dismissed during a redundancy programme. Kaltoft claimed that his employers has discriminated against him for being overweight, even though he did not consider himself to be disabled.
The EU court ruling stopped short of declaring obesity to be a protected characteristic against which all discrimination is prohibited. However, the ECJ did say that if obesity hinders ‘full and effective participation’ at work and if it is a long term limitation, then ‘such obesity can fall within the concept of ‘disability’’ and as such can give rise to discrimination protection.
As the ruling affects the whole of the EU, employers in the UK will now have to ensure that obese workers are not treated less favourably because of their weight. This will include ensuring that other employees don’t discriminate or harass someone because of their weight, as well as ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made where an employee’s size hinders them from doing their job. Such reasonable adjustments may include providing specialist office furniture or providing parking spaces closer to work premises.
It is also worth noting that a key part of the ruling is the fact that the reason/s for an employee being obese is irrelevant, i.e. some who had become obese due to poor diet and lack of exercise would be protected in the same way as someone whose size was due to illness.
The ECJ are yet to clarify whether obesity could be classed as a disability within the legal definition. However, the court did make it clear that rather than specifying a particular body mass index at which obesity could constitute a disability, each claim should be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the effective of the individual obesity, not the degree of obesity.
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