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Emma O'Connor
Emma O'Connor,
HEAD OF TRAINING
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Could obesity be considered a disability under European equality laws?
19 January 2015

Facts

The claimant was employed as a child-minder for the Municipality of Billund in Denmark. He was dismissed on the grounds of redundancy; however, the claimant argued his selection for redundancy was because of his weight and was therefore discriminatory. The claimant reportedly weighed 25 stone and satisfied the World Health Organisation’s definition of obesity. The claimant brought a claim before a Danish court for disability discrimination; however, the Danish court asked the European Court of Justice for a ruling as to whether the claimant could bring a case for disability discrimination. Question - does obesity fall within a general prohibition in EU law covering all forms of discrimination in the labour market?

Answer

The European Court said that obesity of itself was not a “disability” under EU law. However, if one considered the definition of ‘disability’, then obesity could qualify if the symptoms of the condition place a limitation on the individual resulting in a long-term physical, mental or psychological impairment which hinders a worker's full and effective participation in their professional life. Therefore obesity is not an impairment of itself but the effects of obesity may result in a claimant being disabled. The case was referred back to the Danish court to determine if the claimant’s obesity fell within the definition of disability.

Comment

This European case is interesting and illustrates the importance of a claimant having to demonstrate that their condition fits the definition of “Disability”. This case does not mean that anyone who is obese will automatically have protection under equality laws as having a “protected characteristic”; however, it is the effects of the condition which could lead to an employee being disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Employers should bear in mind the duty to make reasonable adjustments for those employees who are disabled and should remember their obligations with regards to combating harassment, improving equality in the workplace and the importance of training staff on how to be more inclusive. Employers are going to have to take matters on a case by case basis and assess each employee individually.

For more information about the issues raised in this article or to find out more about how the Employment team can help you please contact the team on 0118 952 7284 or email [email protected].

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

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