Obese Workers and Disability Rights

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has upheld an earlier ruling of the Advocate General on a question raised by the Danish District Court in holding that severe obesity can be considered a disability under EU law.

The issue arose in the case of Karsten Kaltoft v the Municipality of Billund. Mr Kaltoft worked as a childminder for the local council. Throughout his employment his weight was such that he was classified as morbidly obese. When his employment contract was terminated, he claimed that this was because of his obesity and therefore amounted to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of disability.

The CJEU held that although EU law does not include a general principle prohibiting employers from discriminating on grounds of obesity, so it is not in itself a protected characteristic, obesity can be a disability covered by the protection provided in the EU Equal Treatment Directive if it 'entails a limitation which results in particular from physical, mental or psychological impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, and the limitation is a long-term one'.

Furthermore, whether or not the condition is 'self-inflicted' is irrelevant. Making a distinction as to cause would run counter to the aim of the Directive.

In practical terms, where a member of staff's size hinders his or her ability to do their job on a day-to-day basis, employers must be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs. Special requirements could include reserved parking spaces near to the entrance to the premises, larger than usual company cars, office furniture rated for heavier people and easier access to equipment and office facilities.

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