The Equality Act is designed to ensure that disabled workers receive protection from less favourable treatment if they are disabled, and to ensure that employers make reasonable adjustments to the workplace or working arrangements to accommodate staff with disabilities. However, obesity should not be classed as a disability in and of itself. Do we really want the law to protect 25% of the adult population who are clinically obese, or 64% of adults who are either obese or overweight? I don’t think so, and do not believe that the law should get involved in this.
Although some people who are overweight cannot help their condition, these people will already be protected as those with an eating disorder leading to them being overweight are already protected if they have a mental health condition. People who have mobility problems who cannot exercise are also protected due to their mobility problems, but it is going too far to say that those people who eat too much, or do too little exercise should get the same protection as those suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. Most people are overweight either because they choose to eat too much, or choose to do too little exercise. To classify them alongside people who have limited choices because of their disability is both patronising and, in my view, will also lead to a situation where individuals will increasingly argue that they cannot help being overweight, and deny that being overweight is as a direct result of how they have chosen to behave. If the law protects the overweight under the Equality Act then such individuals may further abdicate their own individual responsibility for the choices they make (which choices are frequently denied to those who are genuinely disabled). The overweight may then further deny their own responsibility to treat themselves, rather than require their employer to make adjustments to accommodate their own poor decision making.
Although it is also true that overweight people suffer discrimination, so do tall people when they book airline seats, or average students with average grades when they apply to university. People discriminate between different characteristics all the time, as to discriminate is to recognise a distinction or to differentiate. However the law should only interfere to prevent such discrimination where it is unjust or unfair.
If the EU decides that obesity is itself a disability, it will force employers to find ways to accommodate overweight or obese workers in a way which removes any disadvantage from those who are not overweight. This could lead to a requirement to provide differential seating, more parking or parking closer to the building for those who really should walk further. In theory employers may have to consider the needs of this group of workers alongside the needs of wheelchair users and give them equal protection. This cannot be right. It will also cost more. Given the Equality Act also covers the provision of goods and services, it will cost everyone more to do anything from going to the theatre to taking public transport. Is this really what we want the law to do because too many people want to deny their own responsibility for eating an extra slice of cake?
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