Under the Equality Act, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. In the case of Walker v Sita Information Networking Computing Ltd an employee suffered from a multitude of physical and mental symptoms described as functional overlay which was significantly compounded by his obesity.
At the Employment Tribunal, the judge found that the employee was not disabled because no physical or mental cause of his impairments could be identified. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned this decision. It held that it did not matter that the cause of the impairment was a condition which is excluded from the definition of disability; the important thing was the effect and length of the impairment.
The EAT held that whilst obesity itself did not render a person disabled, it might make it more likely that someone suffers from a qualifying impairment under the definition and is therefore disabled, depending on the effect of the impairment and how long it might last.
Although an obese employee is not automatically classed as disabled, employers need to be careful about inadvertently discriminating against someone who is obese who has impairments that could mean that they are in fact disabled, as this case confirms that it is the impairment itself that should be considered rather than its cause. Disabled employees are protected from various forms of discrimination and employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to their working practices or workplace, and failure to do this could mean a costly tribunal claim.