In a decision that has sparked great interest and potentially widespread implications for employers across Europe, the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, has ruled that obesity can, in certain circumstances, be considered a disability.
The case centers around a childcare worker Mr Karsten Kaltoft’s who claims he was dismissed from his job for being too fat. Mr Kaltoft weights about 160kg (or 25 Stone).
After 15 years of employment at Billund Local Authority he was sacked, and subsequently brought a discrimination suit against his former employers. The Billund authority rubbished the claims stating a fall in the number of children led to Mr Kaltofts dismissal – something that Mr Kaltoft strongly denies.
The danish court asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether obesity was considered a disability.
The rulings, which are binding for all EU member nations, were that if the obesity of the worker “hinders the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers”, then obesity can fall within the concept of “disability”. Now the Danish courts will need to assess Mr Karltoft’s weight to see if his case can be classed as a disability.
So what impact could this ruling have across Europe?
The ruling has garnered huge interest because there could be significant cost implications depending on the interpretation of the rulings… Lets consider a few of these:
– An obese worker whose weight impacts their performance may be entitled to disability protection.
– Employers could end up needing to make reasonable modifications to workplaces such as larger chairs, designated parking and more.
– Perhaps even providers of goods and services could have to make adjustments for their customers – such as special seating arrangements.
But the big question – is this ruling helping the situation? Employers needing wider seats, special parking spaces, larger workstations… where does it end? Shouldn’t the focus be on how to get rid of stomach fat rather than adjustments after the fact?
Jane Deville Almond, the chairwoman of the British Obesity Society, doesn’t believe that obesity should be classed as a disability. “[It is] implying that people have no control over the condition, rather than something that can be greatly improved by changing behaviour.”
We shall watch with interest as this story unfolds.