EU Courts Rule Obesity Could be Treated as a Disability

The European Court of Justice (EJC), whose authority extends over all of the members nations of the European Union, has now ruled that, in certain circumstances, being overweight can constitute a disability.

The case in questioned involved Karsten Kaltoft, a Denmark “childminder,” who claims that he was fired for being overweight. Kaltoft, who weighs 160 kilograms (around 353 pounds), was sacked four years ago by his employer of 15 years, the Municipality of Billund Local Authority, on the grounds that there had been a decrease in the demand for his services, but Kaltoft believes that he was terminated because of his weight alone.

Kaltoft told the BBC earlier this year that there had been reports stating that his weight rendered him unable to bend down and tie his shoelaces. suggesting that he would therefore be unable to take care of small children, who spend a lot of time down on the floor. According to Kaltoft, that was untrue, claiming that he was able to easily perform the tasks required of him as a childminder, and could sit on the floor and play with children without problem.

While he does not consider himself to be disabled, Kaltoft nevertheless brought a suit against his former employers on the grounds that it is not right that he was fired just because he was overweight, and not because he was unable to do his job. The EJC’s ruling, which is binding across the EU, states that in cases where the worker’s inability to perform the functions required by the worker’s job function is specifically due to the worker’s obesity, that person could be now considered disabled.

When asked for clarification by the Danish courts, the EJC replied that, in circumstances where an obese worker cannot perform work-related tasks up to the standards set for other employees, then obesity can fall within the category of a disability.The judges explained that, while obesity itself is not a disability, the long-term impairments caused by obesity, such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, may well be so. This means that there are cases in which an obese person can be protected by disability legislation.

The ruling could mean that employers would have to make adjustments to the workplace in order to accommodate larger employees. Wider chairs, larger parking bays and specialized bathroom facilities are examples of the types of workplace adjustments that could be required for obese workers. If obesity is classified as a disability, employers could be required make suitable workplace adjustments. Employers would also have to take measures to protect obese employees from verbal harassment from other workers, and take disciplinary action should such workplace bullying occur.

There are also implications for the leisure industry, as places like cinemas, restaurants and shops will have to alter spaces to make them better suited for obese customers. Seating arrangements and toilet spaces are two areas that may have to be altered if obesity is considered a disability.

According to Jane Deville Almond, chair of the British Obesity Society, it is wrong that obese individuals should be thought of as disabled. She sees the provision of specialized seating areas and other accommodations as actions that will only cause obese people to feel that they have no control over their conditions.

As Deville Almond points out, the condition can be altered with behavioural and lifestyle changes, and obese people should not be made to feel that they are unable to change. Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum has said that it is probable that the ruling will cause problems in the workplace, especially if employers are required to make adjustments to work areas.

The Danish courts now have to decide if Kaltoft’s obesity should be considered a disability within the context of the European Court ruling. They are expected t0 reach a decision before the end of 2015.

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