What is a Disability?


A few weeks ago the European Court of Justice ruled that

if the obesity of the worker ‘hinders the full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers’, then obesity can fall within the concept of “disability”.

According to BBC News:

That will mean employers must, on a case by case basis, make reasonable adjustments such as providing larger chairs or special car parking, and protect such employees from verbal harassment.

But there are wider implications. Providers of goods and services such as shops, cinemas and restaurants will also have to make reasonable adjustments for their customers, which might include things like special seating arrangements.

While I do not think that there is ever an appropriate time for things such as verbal abuse, I believe that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent that will not benefit anyone.

I realize that the subject of obesity is a sensitive one for many people, but it’s something that needs to be discussed.

The number of people who are overweight or obese worldwide is increasing quickly and it is a significant health concern for everyone. By making it a disability or by claiming that it is beautiful (like the recent love your body no matter what trend) we are ignoring the health implications of being overweight and are not doing ourselves any favours. This ruling stands to benefit no one (except maybe lawyers).


Lets start with the easiest: businesses. According to this ruling businesses could be forced to make “disability” accommodations such as adding wider seating. I would argue that a smart business would make accommodations for their customers by choice; it makes good business sense to make sure you are not limiting your clientele. However, once it becomes mandated it takes away choice and this always ALWAYS hurts the small businesses. This situation reminds me of my mum. My mum was overweight most of her life and obese for a large part of it. This was partly due to factors beyond her control, but it was also partly due to her lifestyle choices. During the last 5 years of her life she made a huge effort to change that and it was making a difference. As a child I spent a lot of family time at Canada’s Wonderland. It was great except that my dad didn’t like roller coasters and my mum couldn’t fit into all of them. Even though this fact led to some embarrassing and disappointing moments, I NEVER heard my mum complain about the size of the seating. My mum realized that, while unfortunate, it was not the theme park’s job to accommodate her choices or personal situation. Our society seems to function on the premise that everyone should be accommodated no matter what the cost. With my asthma I can’t scuba dive. It’s sad and unfortunate for me, but that’s life and I accept it. You don’t always get what you want (or even what you deserve). Deal with it.


Rulings like this also tend to hit employers hard. Not only do they have less control over who they can fire, they are forced to tip toe around their employees unnecessarily, making sure they don’t get sued. Of course, employers should be kind and make sure obese people are not getting bullied, but that is basic common decency and also covered by other existing laws. This ruling might look good on paper, but in reality it is just going to hurt obese people. If you were employer and you had two closely qualified applicants for a job opening and one was obese and one wasn’t who would you pick? I would definitely pick the employee who was least likely to land me in a rat pit of court dates, lawyer fees, and PC bullshit. Fair? Maybe not, but that’s how the world works. It has nothing to do with the person or their ability, but it makes good financial sense. An obese employee is likely to get better treatment (from most companies) without the shadowy threat of a disability claim following them around.

Disabled People

The first comment on any article about this subject raises the point that some people have health concerns that make it nearly impossible for them to maintain a low weight. That is true. I’ve been there. I gained 80 lbs when I was on antidepressants and I felt hopeless. But, and this is a big but, the majority of people who are overweight are that way due to poor eating habits and lack of exercise. This is not a disability, this is a choice. Yes, mental illness can play a large role in overeating, but lets deal with the real issues and not baby ourselves. If I commit suicide because I’m depressed would you call suicide a disability? Of course not. It’s a symptom, just like obesity. To me disability implies something that is beyond the control of the person who has it and I’m not the only one. Even the mayor of London seems to agree.

I feel like this ruling does a huge disservice to those who actually suffer from illnesses and issues beyond their control. It adds stigma to the disabled, especially those with mental illnesses, because it implies that they can all do something about their situations.

People who are Overweight or Obese

I get why people who are overweight or obese might think that this ruling is going to make their lives easier, but I would argue the opposite. Beyond the employment issues I raised earlier, it justifies a sense of helplessness. We live in a society that is always looking for the easy way out or to blame someone else for our problems. But the truth is losing weight and changing your eating habits sucks. A lot. It’s not easy and it take time and patience. But it’s worth it! By accommodating seriously overweight people we are giving them one less reason to get themselves healthy. Even Jane Deville Almond, the chairwoman of the British Obesity Society, disagrees with the ruling.

I think the downside would be that if employers suddenly have to start ensuring that they’ve got wider seats, larger tables, more parking spaces for people who are obese, I think then we’re just making the situation worse… [It is] implying that people have no control over the condition, rather than something that can be greatly improved by changing behaviour.

Let’s face it. In order to be covered by the new ruling you need to be overweight enough that it seriously impacts your day to day life, and no matter which way you cut it that’s unhealthy. We need to stop pretending that being overweight is just about image and start taking responsibilities for our choices.

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