Under both the Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, a person is disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment and that impairment has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities.
We are often asked whether obesity can be considered a disability. Some argue obesity would only do so if it was caused by a physical or mental condition, such as an overactive thyroid.
In Walker v Sita Information, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) had to decide whether a claimant who suffered from a constellation of symptoms (including asthma, diabetes, knee problems, anxiety and depression, bowel and stomach problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and fungal infections) accentuated by his own obesity, was disabled. In the alternative the EAT had to consider if obesity was an “impairment” itself.
Despite there being no cause for the constellation of symptoms (save, in part, the claimant’s obesity), the EAT held that the claimant was disabled. The EAT stressed that an employment tribunal should not focus on what the cause of an impairment may be. In this particular case, that it did not matter that there was no pathological, underlying cause (or causes) of the claimant’s various impairments. What an employment tribunal had to do was consider if the mental or physical impairments were genuine and that the other constituent parts of the definition of “disability” (as above) were met.
In reaching its judgment, the EAT rejected the argument that the claimant’s obesity in itself rendered him disabled. Interestingly, the EAT accepted that obesity may be persuasive evidence that a person suffers from an impairment or that a separate condition, such as diabetes, may constitute a disability. The key point for employers to note from this case is that whilst obesity itself may not amount to a disability, the side-effects associated with it could well do so.