Obesity may be disability

16 March 2015

In December 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) confirmed that there is no general principle which prohibits discrimination on ground of obesity. Obesity is not an impairment of itself. However, the effects of obesity may result in a finding that an individual is disabled.

Mr Kaltoft worked as a childminder in Denmark until he was dismissed after 15 years’ service. He had a BMI of 54 while employed and found it difficult to perform some aspects of his work as a result. He claimed that he had been dismissed because of his obesity.

The ECJ confirmed, by reference to the European Equal Treatment Directive, that whether obesity amounts to a disability will depend on whether it causes long-term limitations which prevent the person from fully participating in professional life on an equal basis with their peers. Such limitations may be physical, mental or psychological impairments.

This view accords with the definition of disability imposed in English courts by the Equality Act 2010: a physical or mental impairment where the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Schools should be mindful that, while obesity will not by itself render a member of staff disabled, where an employee suffers health problems which are caused by their obesity, these symptomatic problems may render them disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act. Each case will depend on its own facts.

Schools should take care to consider the possibility of disability when considering taking action in relation to employment issues and to consider whether there may be reasonable adjustments which would accommodate the employee’s specific challenges.

Ben Collingwood