• Suzanne McMinn
  • 30 July 2014

Obesity - the new disability?

Talk about a minefield of upset and litigious opportunity, the new one up for consideration is whether or not obesity should be covered under the disability protection.

The debate which has sparked both medical and legal opinions is surrounding the European Court of Justice case, brought by Mr Kaltoft, a Danish child minder who was dismissed by his local authority.

What the case surely has to be concerned with is whether obesity should be classed as a disability. Currently, the UK legislation afforded by the Equality Act has some clear guidance as to whether an individual has a disability, looking very specifically at the nature of the impairment rather than the cause of it. For example, being obese currently does not provide you with protection under the Act, but as a result of obesity if an individual could suffer a medical issue – heart disease or stroke, which will be covered by the Act.

The outcome of the ECJ case could therefore have huge ramifications on employers’ approaches to recruiting and managing obese individuals in the workplace. Currently, 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK are medically classed as overweight or obese, so the window of opportunity is wide open for more claims from employees stating that employers have failed to make reasonable adjustments in line with their new ‘protected’ requirements.

We all would like to think that we are all open minded employers, who provide everyone with an equal chance at employment, promotion and training. However, a study of 2,000 HR professionals completed by Personnel Today showed that the majority preferred to recruit employees of a ‘normal weight’.

There are also numerous studies which are reviewing the productivity and ability of obese versus non-obese employee. In my view, this is a dangerous stereotype which only sets to promote different treatment. Individuals should be treated on their own ability - there are overweight highly productive people and underweight, lazy unengaged people too.

I for one will be waiting to see the outcome of the case and what judgments will be made - could obesity really be classed as a disability?