In a recent decision the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has confirmed that obesity itself is not a disability for the purposes of discrimination law. However, it held that conditions caused by obesity are likely to render someone disabled.
The legal definition of disability is:
". a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect upon [his] ability to carry out normal day to day activities."
Only claimants who can show they satisfy this definition are protected against disability discrimination. In addition, an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees and job applicants who are disabled.
In Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd the EAT overturned an employment tribunal's decision that an obese claimant was not disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).
The claimant weighed over 21 stone and genuinely suffered from numerous conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression and carpal tunnel syndrome. Although this resulted in various physical and mental symptoms these could not be attributed to any recognisable pathological or mental cause.
The EAT considered that the employment judge had fallen into error in ruling that the claimant was not disabled. The judge had wrongly focused on the fact that he could not identify a cause for the claimant's impairments rather than considering the effect of those impairments on the claimant's day-to-day activities.
The EAT ruled that the claimant in this case was disabled under the DDA but disagreed that obesity was a clinically recognised condition which in itself would justify a finding of disability.
Although this case considered the DDA its reasoning will apply equally to the Equality Act 2010.
It would be surprising if an obese claimant did not have some medical conditions associated with that state such as diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems etc. However, for an impairment to be a disability the effects must have a "long-term" (i.e. have or be expected to last for 12 months or more) adverse impact on normal day-to-day activities.
The EAT did recognise the possibility in this case that an obese person who was determined to lose weight and return to normal weight levels within 12 months might not have a long-term impairment.
Despite the EAT refusing to accept that obesity itself is a disability, it seems likely that tribunals will in future be more open to the conclusion that an obese person is disabled. Tribunals will be required to examine the impact of the obesity on the individual and their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, not the cause of any symptoms arising from it.
Some researchers have predicted that up to 48% of men and 43% of women in the UK could be obese by 2030. Employers therefore need to be alive to the possibility that obese employees and job applicants could be disabled and remember their duty to make reasonable adjustments for such individuals.