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EU Court: Obesity could qualify as a disability

EU Court: Obesity could qualify as a disability

Following a preliminary EU court ruling, severe obesity may in future be classified as a disability under EU law. The ruling from the advocate general of the European Court of Justice on a claim by Karsten Kaltoft, a Danish childminder dismissed by his local city council in 2010 after reportedly being unable to bend down to tie up shoelaces, found that EU law did not prohibit discrimination specifically on the grounds of obesity, but concluded that very severe obesity – classified as a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40 – could be considered a disability.

“If obesity has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life, then this can be a disability,” the advocate general said. He added that a “self-inflicted” disability like obesity was as worthy of protection as other disabilities and that the “origin of the disability is irrelevant”.

Big changes for UK employers

Mr Kaltoft had argued that his weight was one of the reasons why he lost his job, claiming that it amounted to unfair discrimination. The ECJ will now consider Mr Kaltoft’s case in greater detail. If it upholds the advocate general’s view, it will be up to a Danish court to decide whether Mr Kaltoft’s obesity meets the court’s definition of a disability. However, as the ruling falls under the Equal Treatment in Employment Directive, which is implemented in the UK by way of the Equality Act 2010, the EU ruling would be relevant to all UK employers.

It is believed that if the ruling is successful, it will force far-reaching changes in the way in which employers across Europe deal with staff, as they may be under a legal obligation to make adjustments such as providing special desks or entrances for obese staff, or assigning them duties which involve reduced walking or travelling. Other adjustments could include providing car parking spaces close to the entrance of a workplace and ensuring that healthy meals are provided in staff canteens.

Critics hit out

Discussing the case, Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “If this opinion becomes the Court’s ruling, then the law is either an ass or barking mad. To give morbidly obese people the right to sue their employers if they become so fat that they cannot do the job they have signed up to do is beyond belief. The mind boggles as to the likely cost to employers if the Court decides to accept this opinion”.

Currently 64% of adults in the UK are classed as being overweight or obese and over 1.52m people in the UK are classed as morbidly obese

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