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Obesity disability discrimination: cause or effect?

With recent Government statistics claiming that 60% of the UK’s adult population are overweight or obese, it is more important than ever for employers to understand the relationship between this condition and their obligations under disability discrimination law.

In the recent Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd the EAT determined that it was the effect and not the cause of the obesity condition that should be considered when assessing whether or not a claimant is disabled for the purpose of bringing a claim under disability legislation.

The decision 

At the initial hearing the Employment Tribunal (ET) concluded that the claimant, who weighed in excess of 21 stones and suffered from a “constellation of symptoms” including asthma, diabetes, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, bowel and stomach problems, joint pains and recurring infections, was not disabled. The ET’s reasoning for this was that the medical evidence revealed no physical or mental cause of the symptoms, other than his obesity.

While obesity is a recognised clinical condition, it is not in and of itself a recognised disability for the purposes of employment law. On appeal the EAT rejected the original Tribunal’s approach. Instead the EAT confirmed that in assessing whether such individuals are disabled, a tribunal should look to whether the claimant has an “impairment” and secondly whether such an impairment is physical or mental.

The EAT found that it is not generally necessary to consider how such an impairment is caused and that the effect, the resulting impairment, is ultimately paramount in such cases. An example given in highlighting this was that while alcoholism is itself expressly excluded as a disability, the resulting physical impairment from liver failure is not.

The EAT concluded that although it did not accept obesity as a disability itself, it did accept that obesity makes it more likely that someone will be disabled due to the effects of the condition.

Conclusion

While obesity is still not a recognised standalone disability, clearly the cumulative health factors can amount to physical and/or mental impairments, the overall effects of which are more likely to amount to an obese individual being disabled.

If you are confronted with dealing with an obese employee always ensure you take legal advice otherwise you may fall foul of the disability discrimination legislation embedded in the Equality Act 2010. 

If you need advice considering whether a health issue amounts to being a disability or if you believe you are suffering from disability discrimination please contact a member of our team on 01133 50 40 30 or at hello@scesolicitors.co.uk for a free initial consultation.


Samira Cakali

Samira Cakali is a pragmatic and approachable solicitor advocate with extensive contentious and non-contentious experience in the fields of employment law as well as civil litigation, within a range of commercial businesses from SME’s to multinationals as well as senior executives.

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