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Expanding the Scope of Disability?
We are the fattest nation in Western Europe with most people being either overweight or obese. Over 60% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15 in the UK are fat. It’s widely recognised that overweight people are …
We are the fattest nation in Western Europe with most people being either overweight or obese. Over 60% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15 in the UK are fat. It’s widely recognised that overweight people are at a higher risk of developing health problems, including diabetes, heart and respiratory problems, some cancers and back and walking problems. It is not surprising that obesity is impacting on employers with fat and obese employees taking more sick leave and complaining that they can no longer carry out certain roles, tasks and duties. Interestingly the US, reportedly the fattest nation in the world, has recognised obesity as a disability in some states.
But what is the situation here? The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) tackled the issue head on in the case of Walker v SITA Information Network Computing Ltd. 
Mr Walker was 21.5 stone. He suffered from a number of problems including asthma, diabetes, high blood sugar, chronic fatigue syndrome, various knee, shoulder, back and feet problems, eye problems, stomach and bowel issues, depression and anxiety. The Employment Tribunal (ET) considered that Mr Walker was not disabled because there was no physical or organic cause for his problems which were caused or accentuated by his obesity. Mr Justice Langstaff, the President of the EAT overturned the ET’s decision and found that Mr Walker was disabled.
He confirmed it was the effect of the impairment not its cause which was material to whether a person was considered disabled under the law. Mr Justice Langstaff further stated that the absence of the cause of the impairment was an evidential issue for the ET as to whether the person genuinely had the problems or not. In this case, all sides accepted that Mr Walker was genuinely a very ill man. The EAT commented that whilst obesity was not a disability in itself, it may make it more likely that someone was disabled.
Summary and action points for employers:
- Overweight employees may be disabled
- Consider if an employee’s problems/symptoms impact on their daily activities rather than looking at the cause of problems. Doctor’s reports may assist
- Consider whether reasonable adjustments are required
- Review contract/Sickness Absence policy
- Keep managers updated on changes on the law
For further information, please contact:
Richard Woodman, Head of Employment.
Gemma Ospedale, Employment Partner.
Helen Murphie, Senior Associate