Can being overweight really be a disability? The debate about “obesity” and disability
By Linda Powell On 12 June 2014, a Danish case will be heard in Europe to decide whether “obesity” is in fact a disability. An employee who suffers from obesity may not be at first blush be considered to be disabled, after all, their lifestyle has led to their condition? Not so, say the courts. Being overweight can lead to other serious health complaints such as diabetes, heart and joint problems, breathing difficulties or difficulty walking which can all have a substantial and long term impact on the individual’s daily life, and can be considered disabilities. In a recent English case, it was accepted that obesity does not make a person disabled, but it may make it more likely that they are. Guidance on disability discrimination exists in this area which says that the cause of the impairment is irrelevant, even if the condition arises from something which has been excluded such as an alcohol or drug addiction. The conditions that arise from these lifestyle choices such as liver failure, septicaemia and diabetes could of itself be a disability. The important thing for employers to remember is that it’s the effect of liver failure, diabetes, breathing difficulties etc. rather than the cause of the problem (i.e. food or alcohol addiction) which the employer must think about. If you consider that your employee is suffering from an underlying health condition, you will need to think about whether you can make any reasonable adjustments to their working terms or environment to avoid a disadvantage arising from the disability to avoid a claim for discrimination. It is impossible to predict all outcomes, but at least if you can demonstrate that you have thought about the impact of the working environment on an employee with a health complaint you will have a fighting chance of defending any claim brought. If you have an issue like this with an employee you will need to think carefully about the best way to tackle this thorny issue. You can get expert HR and Legal guidance from HR Insight Ltd….