European Court Questions Obesity as a Disability

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A case before the European Court of Justice this month asks whether people who are obese or morbidly obese should be protected under the EUís disability laws and therefore have employment protection on that basis.

A case before the European Court of Justice this month asks whether people who are obese or morbidly obese should be protected under the EU’s disability laws and therefore have employment protection on that basis.

The case is brought by a 25-stone (350 pounds) Danish child minder, Karsten Kaltoft. He contends that the termination of his employment by his local authority because of his size was unlawful. His employer contends that Mr Kaltoft’s size left him unable to properly perform his duties, and therefore his termination was lawful.

Europe has strong legislation protecting people from being fired because of a disability, however Europe-wide legislation does not cover obesity itself as a physical handicap. As such, this case is being treated as an important one because if the court were to find in favor of Kaltoft it would open employers across Europe to potential discrimination claims and mean that employers would have to give due consideration to the abilities of people who are very overweight and how they can give reasonable accommodation to ensure the obese staff member can keep doing their job.

To be clear, this case isn’t talking about people who are just a bit overweight. We are looking at the point at which being overweight affects mobility and overall health — that’s not the same as having what is by most standards an average and, depending on the frame, healthy body fat composition.

Moving away from the specifics of this case, to discuss the issue in a more general way, we see that it is complicated by the ugly side of our media and our own discourse that gives in to fat shaming. A less than compassionate attitude says that this is the person’s own fault and therefore why should they be accommodated? That is of course quite ignorant of the facts surrounding obesity, more of which we will go into below.

Undoubtedly, there is a desire to keep as many people working as possible. If, therefore, we wish for obese people to keep working it seems within the bounds of reason that employers should at least try to accommodate the very overweight to help them do their jobs properly, which is something that is touched on in the above case. For instance, assessing a person’s mobility and giving them jobs that are within the bounds of their capabilities.

Second, if we really do want to help the obese and get them to a healthy weight that they are happy with, we should also consider that doing what we can to keep people in a job rather than forcing them out of work because of their weight issues is very important.

A large body of anecdotal evidence tells us that, like all of us, when obese people are not given the chance at fulfilling employment they are susceptible to a number of dangerous lifestyle choices. The key concern would be that unemployment could cause depression and stress and may in turn mean that the overweight person’s health spirals out of control and further decreases their chances of employment — that sets up a vicious circle that any government interested in keeping the maximum number of people in work at any one time would want to guard against.

In addition, scientific research continues to unpack the phenomenon of obesity and finds that for a number of people, an addiction has formed that is at least probably partially down to genetic factors. We know that there are a number of environmental factors, like stress, that also appear to contribute to emotional problems that often manifest as overeating and possibly obesity. Therefore, condemning obese people as having a condition of their own making isn’t just unkind but in many cases inaccurate.

More recent research has demonstrated that there are significant similarities between what goes on in the brain of someone who has problems with alcohol and substance abuse and those who chronically overeat. That is not to say that all overweight people are addicts, nor is it to imply that illicit drug use is comparable to overeating in a broader sense, just that the activity in the brain that causes people to rely on substances and form addictions is similar.

The main critics of this case tend to be employers who say that obesity cannot be treated the same as a physical disability because there is no underlying physical cause.

Interestingly, a recent case in the U.S. tested this premise and found in favor of the worker who had been fired because of her size. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found against the clinic at which the claimant worked, saying that morbid obesity created functional impairment and therefore is, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability in and of itself. The employer settled the case for $125,000.

Some opposition is more nuanced, though. Take this piece in the Guardian which, though falling prey to the “being fat is a choice” message, touches on something we mentioned above: that if science shows chronic overeating is similar to or actually is an addiction, we should treat it as such and not a disability, otherwise we might miss a chance to help people get their weight under control.

I’m inclined to believe that both approaches are warranted: that clearly morbid obesity leads to disability once a certain stage has been reached (which could be testable) and therefore should be given consideration in the workplace.

At the same time, our governments need to wake up to a general food addiction that permeates our culture and create interventions that actually understand that while there might be component of choice (in the same way that we can all pick our poison) those people who have come to rely on food may have no more say than someone dealing with any other addiction.

More than all this though, we should actually be listening to the people whom this affects and recognize that contrary to body-negative stereotypes, they are people who are motivated in their work and want to pursue their career goals just like many of us who are not dealing with body image issues and weight management — after all, we don’t stop being people once the scale tips over a certain number.

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