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Is obesity a disability?

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It has long been publicised that being overweight or obese can have an impact upon health and wellbeing but the issue has now been caused to be considered the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) in the context of employment and disability discrimination.

The ECJ has considered, in relation to a claim brought by an obese employee in Denmark, whether or not obesity could be considered a disability for the purposes of discrimination legislation.

The ECJ confirmed that where an individual suffers from a long term impairment which impacts upon their ability to participate in professional life, they may be protected by disability discrimination legislation.  The fact that the impairment results from obesity is not a relevant factor.  Protection under disability discrimination legislation may also trigger an obligation on an employer to make reasonable adjustments to assist the individual.

The decision from the ECJ has led to concern that employers will now be required to make adjustments such as providing larger chairs or adapting office space to accommodate obese individuals.  Whilst this may be a result in some cases, the ECJ’s decision does not impose an automatic requirement to make adjustments for obese individuals; consideration will need to be given on a case by case basis as to whether an individual is disabled and, if they are, whether or not there are any reasonable adjustments which can be made to overcome any impairment.

Employers would be advised to consider whether or not an individual suffers a particular impairment as a result of their size, rather than simply focussing on size itself but will need to be careful to ensure matters are handled with sensitivity.  In light of the potential difficulties connected to disability discrimination claims, legal advice should be sought prior to making decisions which may adversely impact obese individuals.

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