Is obesity a disability?

by Lucy Duane on March 31, 2013

  • SumoMe

Each year, countless millions of people mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ by unwrapping egg and bunny-shaped chocolates (and ceremoniously scoffing them down): around 80 million Easter eggs are purchased and eaten annually in the UK alone. I too have indulged in a traditional treat (or two) this Easter Sunday. While for many such sugary treats are just that, a “treat”, for some, fast food, supersize portions and calorific cuisine has become the norm: according to a 2012 NHS Report 26% of the UK’s adult population is obese.

Obesity will inevitably impact on an employee’s sickness absence and it is not surprising that obesity-related disputes have started to appear in the employment tribunal. But does obesity mean that an employee is disabled and therefore protected by UK equality legislation?

Earlier this month, the EAT in Walker v SITA Information Networking Computing Ltd had to determine whether an employment tribunal was right to rule that an obese employee was not disabled because there was no identifiable cause for the numerous medical conditions from which he suffered.

The Tribunal Decision

Mr Walker suffered from numerous ailments including asthma, knee problems, diabetes anxiety and depression, which gave rise to various symptoms causing him significant difficulty in his day-to-day life. The employment tribunal regarded the symptoms as being compounded by his weight of 21.5 stones.

Although the tribunal did not challenge the genuineness of Mr Walker’s symptoms or their effects, as the Employment Judge could not determine a physical or mental cause for his symptoms, he ruled that Mr Walker was not disabled for the purposes of UK equality legislation. Mr Walker appealed.

The EAT Ruling

Earlier this month, the EAT concluded that Mr Walker was disabled.

The EAT held that the focus should not be on the underlying cause of the impairment but on whether there is actually an impairment: the effects of an impairment should not be overlooked merely because the cause cannot be identified.

To assess whether a claimant is disabled under the legislation, tribunals must consider:

1. Whether the claimant has an impairment

2. Whether the impairment is physical and/or mental

3. Whether the impairment(s) have a substantial and long-term effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities

It is important to note that the EAT did not accept that obesity, without more, is a disability for within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. The fact that an employee is obese doesn’t necessarily mean that they are disabled, though it may make it more likely that an employment tribunal would conclude that they have an impairment, which may be suffered for a substantial length of time, and the employee will therefore be considered to be disabled for the purposes of UK equality legislation.

Lucy Duane
I am a qualified Employment Lawyer with experience advising clients on both contentious and non-contentious employment law matters. I am currently an Associate at Fasken Martineau LLP. For more blog posts visit: www.employment101.co.uk Please follow me on Twitter: @Employment_101
Lucy Duane
Lucy Duane

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