To begin with, my apologies to Hilary, I am not going to argue that obesity should be adopted as a disability under the Equality Act. It should not enjoy all the protections of the law in the same way as race or sex. My point is that people suffering from obesity should enjoy a limited protection under that act, namely from harassment.
The Equality Act is designed to ensure a level playing field both in the workplace and in wider society for people who might otherwise be held back owing to prejudice over their personal characteristics. Surveys carried out at primary schools using picture cards have shown that the fictional child that pupils would least like for a friend is the one who is overweight. They can be the subject of jokes and face acute embarrassment and lack of self-confidence. It can turn them against their own physical appearance; wishing they looked different. For a child and even an adult, it is a deeply unpleasant and upsetting position to be in. Yes, some people have brought it upon themselves but how many people in today’s consumer society does this really apply to? We have a food industry that pumps countless tons of sugar into the food we eat causing addiction and weight gain. Such cheap processed foods can be particularly attractive to lower income families.
Through no fault of their own many people will have the personal characteristic of excess weight which can make them a target for other people’s behaviour and intolerance. In an age where Jedi Knights can argue about protection under the Equality Act and Scientologists can even gain such protection, is it too much to ask that this legislation covers obesity? Let’s not class it as a disability; it is not something that society should accept as a norm rather it is something which the Government and the food industry must combat. In the wake of the “Red Tape Taskforce” I would agree that full inclusion under the Equality Act would be going too far. But let’s ensure people are not humiliated in the workplace because of their weight. Yes, obesity might be hard to define legally, but this has not stopped people bringing claims under the age discrimination sections of the Equality Act where it not quite clear which age groups are in contention.
Even though I advocate only the inclusion of the harassment provisions of the Equality Act for obesity, ultimately conduct within the workplace that violates an obese person’s dignity or creates a hostile, degrading or humiliating environment, would class as harassment. It need not just be making someone the butt of jokes. A workplace that does not in any way accommodate an overweight person, for example, in the design of furniture, could, without the need for any of the direct/indirect discrimination provisions, fall foul of harassment. When added to the fact that health conditions that arise from obesity can, independently, be protected under the disability sections of the Equality Act, this would be progress.
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