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Obese employee was disabled under the Equality Act

BY Fiona McBeath
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) has found that an obese employee was disabled and therefore could bring a disability HR claim against his employer.

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a "physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term effect on [the Claimant’s] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities".  

The original decision of the employment tribunal was that Mr Walker was not disabled because medical professionals could not find a physical or mental cause for his ailments other than obesity. The EAT overturned that decision, finding that the tribunal judge was wrong to concentrate on the literal meaning of “physical or mental impairment”. Instead of focusing on the cause of the condition, the tribunal should have considered its effect on the Claimant.  

The EAT highlighted that, in considering whether an impairment is classed as a disability, the focus should be on the nature of the impairment itself rather than the cause of the impairment. It clarified that, while obesity itself is not considered a disability, the effect of the condition can give rise to ailments which could be classed as a disability. 

The tribunal likened obesity with alcoholism, a disease which is expressly excluded from the definition of a disability under the Equality Act. While an alcoholic may not be disabled solely because of their alcoholism, if they go on to develop liver failure as a result, the medical impairments they would suffer would make them disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act.

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