Employers: Obesity not a disability

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Is obesity a disability? It’s the question facing the European Court of Justice after Danish childcare worker Karsten Kaltoft claimed he was fired in part for being too fat.

But a poll carried out by UK law firm Pennington Manches found that 98% of employers did not think that obese workers should be protected by disability law, Workplace Savings and Benefits reported.

The poll follows a non-binding legal opinion from Niilo Jaaskinen, the advocate general who advises the European Court of Justice, who found that the existing law does not specifically prohibit discrimination on the grounds of obesity.

He concluded that extreme obesity, defined as having a body mass index of more than 40, could be considered a disability.

“If obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability,” he said.

He also added that a “self-inflicted” disability like obesity was as worthy of protection as other disabilities and that the “origin of the disability is irrelevant”.

The poll found that 89% of respondents did not currently make any workplace adjustments for obese or overweight workers and 79% said they would not have to make any changes to their ordinary working practices if obesity was covered by disability law.

In an article on the Pennington Manches website, partner Tom Walker argued that people suffering from obesity should “enjoy a limited protection” under the EU’s Equality Act, namely from harassment.

“The Equality Act is designed to ensure a level playing field both in the workplace and in wider society for people who might otherwise be held back owing to prejudice over their personal characteristics.”

But fellow partner Hilary Aldred put forward the case that “obesity should not be classed as a disability in and of itself” and that the law should not get involved with protecting obese or overweight adults.

“If the law protects the overweight under the Equality Act, then such individuals may further abdicate their own individual responsibility for the choices they make – choices which are frequently denied to those who are genuinely disabled.”

Do you think obesity should be covered by disability law?
  • Joann on 2014-08-27 11:04:41 AM

    If Obesity if caused by a medical condition, i.e Hypothyroidism, or Cushings Syndrome, then yes, however if obesity is caused by ones own habits, then No...

  • Safire on 2014-08-27 11:40:01 AM

    I'm not sure I agree with Joann, we cover substance addictions/dependance as disabilities, and those are caused by one's own "habits" often. There isn't a lot of information about genetic pre-disposition to obesity, etc. In the absence of information, how can we sit in judgment?

  • leon on 2014-08-27 12:33:46 PM

    Over eating as a result of emotional trauma or other mental health issue, genetic predisposition, addiction corn syrup added to prepared foods, medical side effects from steroid perscription, etc. etc. are all factors that can't be seen, we can't judge a person just by looking at them and any attempt to discriminate or refuse to accommodate these people should not be allowed.

  • CJGrace on 2014-08-27 1:03:17 PM

    Obesity is an illness and addiction just as alcohol, drug and gambling addictions.

  • Mike on 2014-08-27 1:10:45 PM

    Safire brings up a point of contention. Just because we currently treat substance addictions as disabilities doesn't mean it is correct. This action leads to the slippery slope that now is opening to obesity. When I speak candidly with employers, most do not agree with either point of view. It's been argued (quite well) that to eliminate individual responsibility in this way, simply cheapens the actions taken for more "legitimate" disabilities--ones where the person had no choices or options.

  • Jeanne on 2014-08-27 2:13:11 PM

    Obesity is often a symptom or side-effect of something else too (depression, diabetes, thyroid, metabolic disease, etc) so to paint it with a wide brush and said it's due to one's personal habits is not right. That would be like saying lung cancer is not a disability because the patient was a smoker. Although there may be some merit to that statement, it doesn't change the outcome of the patient's needs.

  • Jeanne on 2014-08-27 2:15:10 PM

    Obesity is often a symptom or side-effect of something else too (depression, diabetes, thyroid, metabolic disease, etc) so to paint it with a wide brush and said it's due to one's personal habits is not right. That would be like saying lung cancer is not a disability because the patient was a smoker. Although there may be some merit to that statement, it doesn't change the outcome of the patient's needs.

  • Safire on 2014-08-27 3:09:16 PM

    leon, Jeanne - well said

  • Lorraine on 2014-08-27 9:46:46 PM

    My God, soon every single person with any kind of issue will be considered disabled and expect protection under the law. Where do we go from there and where does personal responsibility come in? If this law is passed, many countries, not only companies, will go broke!

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