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Is obesity a disability?

This was the question considered by the EAT recently in Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd UKEAT/0098/12. The EAT decided that an obese claimant, who suffered from a number of physical and mental conditions, was disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The judge had wrongly focused on the fact that no cause had been found for the claimant’s impairments. He should instead have focused on the effect of those impairments.

The EAT clarified that obesity is not in itself an impairment for disability discrimination purposes. However, obesity might make it more likely that a claimant has impairments within the meaning of the legislation (now the Equality Act 2010). In this case, the claimant weighed over 21 stone and the list of conditions he suffered from was extensive (asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, knee problems, bowel problems, anxiety and depression). The claimant’s symptoms were regarded as ‘functional overlay’ accentuated by his weight. The evidence from occupational health was that the claimant suffered from a chronic permanent condition which affected his daily living.

A person has a disability for discrimination purposes if they have a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” An impairment will have a long-term effect only if it has lasted 12 months; is likely to last for 12 months; or is likely to last for the rest of the person’s life. The interplay between this definition of disability and obesity throws up a number of particular issues e.g.

  • The obesity might affect the length of time for which the impairment is likely to last;
  • Where a tribunal concludes that an obese employee will reduce their weight to normal levels within a year, this might mean that impairments connected with the obesity would not be considered “long-term”.

 

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