The European Court (CJEU) has ruled that obesity can be a disability in certain circumstances. In particular, the Court held that although there is no general principle of EU law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of obesity, the condition may still fall within the concept of ‘disability’ and thereby attract protection against discrimination under the Equal Treatment Framework Directive. It will only do so, however, where the usual criteria for establishing a disability are satisfied, including when obesity hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.
What does this mean for UK employers?
The principles of the Directive have been incorporated into UK legislation through the Equality Act 2010 (EqA), which protects against disability discrimination. In addition, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to an individual’s work or working arrangements in order to counter the effects of disability.
The CJEU decision confirms that obesity, without anything else (such as diabetes) qualifies as a disability. Therefore, if obesity, in itself, satisfies the definition of disability under the EqA, e.g. by causing reduced mobility, it may be sufficient to constitute a disability.
Sara Sawicki Says: Employers should be alert to employees who have a potential disability (including those who are obese and who are therefore potentially disabled) when making decisions that affect such employees. You should consider whether an employee has requested adjustments to their work or working environment. Are you aware that an employee is struggling? If the employer knows that the employee has a disability, or ought reasonably to know, the employer has a legal obligation to consider reasonable adjustments for the disabled employee. In the case of obesity, this might include the provision of larger chairs and desks, and providing car parking spaces nearer to the work premises.