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Is obesity a disability under the Equality Act?

Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

Note: this article was first written by our colleagues at Solve HR, before Solve HR joined Law At Work in March 2020. We have imported this...

NHS recently predicted that if present trends continue half of the population could be obese by 2030. In the recent case of Walker v SITA Information Network Computing Limited the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) held that an obese employee was disabled and therefore capable of bringing a disability discrimination claim against his employer. In light of this decision, some employers might be alarmed to think that they should automatically class obese employees as having a disability; that fear would be largely groundless. The Equality Act defines a disability under section 6 as a person who has a '"physical or mental impairment'" which has a '"substantial and long term adverse effect on that person's ability to carry out normal day to day activities.'" Mr Walker who weighed 21.5 stone brought a discrimination claim on grounds of disability. He suffered numerous health complaints including high blood pressure, depression and bowel problems. Although these problems gave rise to a myriad of symptoms (chronic fatigue, abdomen pains and pains in his limbs) which affected his ability to carry out day to day activities, the Tribunal held that he did not have a disability because medical professionals could not find a physical cause for his ailments other than obesity. The EAT held that the first instance Tribunal had erred in law; finding that the Tribunal should not have focused on whether obesity itself should be considered a disability but whether the effects of that condition might give rise to ailments which could be deemed a disability. In some ways obesity can be compared to alcoholism, an illness which expressly does not fall under the Equality Act's definition of disability. While the alcoholic may not be disabled by dint of their addiction, the liver disease they may go on to develop could cause them to suffer ailments that would fall within the definition of a disabled person under the Equality Act. The ailments consequent upon obesity might cause the overweight employee to fall into the category of disabled, but such an employee who has not yet developed disabling symptoms does not suffer a disability by reason of obesity.

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