Is obesity a disability or a self-inflicted condition triggered by a lack of willpower and overeating?
Should people who are overweight be protected by the same discrimination laws that were put in place to shield those who are wheelchair users, people with learning difficulties, hearing and visual impairments or those with autism spectrum disorders? A landmark test case being brought before judges at the European Court of Justice has sparked an intense debate on the issue.
The result of it may mean British companies will have to treat obese workers as ‘disabled’, making allowances for their size by providing larger sized seats and parking spaces closer to the office.
Karsten Kaltoft is taking action after he was sacked by his local authority in Denmark for being unable to perform his duties as a childminder, due to his size.
The council, alleged the 25 stone childminder was so fat that he required help from a co-worker to tie up children’s shoelaces. Mr Kaltoft’s lawyers could force widespread changes in the way bosses deal with staff if successful in redefining obesity as a disability.
Currently in the UK the ruling is clear, the Equality Act 2010 refrained from classing obesity as a disability.
Instead the Government definition is that a person is ‘disabled under the Equality Act 2010, if they have a mental or physical impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities.’. However for many people living with a disability, they self-define themselves as such, basing their disability more on the barriers society puts in the way of them leading the life they wish.
For someone stuck in a wheelchair ascending the steps to a cinema or restaurant, can provide a barrier and as a result a person is likely to class themselves as disabled.
Claire Dawson, employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, declared the judgement “should encourage and support the full participation of obese people in the workplace”.
She said: “Obesity in itself has not previously been classed as a disability in UK law.
“However, where an obese person has other health difficulties that can be associated with and potentially compounded by obesity, such as mobility difficulties, diabetes or depression, these may give rise to protection against disability discrimination at work.
Disability charity Scope asked users and followers for their views on the debate, via Twitter and Facebook. The overwhelming response from members of the public was that obesity should not be classed as a disability.
TV personality Katie Hopkins sums it up by tweeting that “obesity was not a disability if you could walk to the fridge and stuff your face”.
Former Olympic coach Dave Smith also tweeted “obesity has grown from lifestyle to disease to disability all from the abuse of the hole in your face.”.
A study conducted by the university of Tubingen in 2012 showed that overweight people have a harder time finding work with fat women experiencing the most discrimination. Researcher Ansgar Thiel said: “Only 2 % of those surveyed matched the obese women in … pictures with a prestigious profession. And only about 6 % of respondents thought that they would be among the final choices for the head of department position.” Equality for women in the workplace and politics is still an issue. The extra pounds are another obstacle to overcome.
Undoubtedly this is a debate that will not go away easily says David Miller who runs the UK website www.disabilitymatch.co.uk – “we have members who are obese but quite often that is more a result of an underlying disability or side effect of a medication. Obesity from poor lifestyle choices is maybe a different issue entirely.”