What to Know About the European Union's Obesity Ruling

PHOTO: The European Union has ruled obesity as a disability.Getty Images
The European Union has ruled obesity as a disability.

Europe's highest court ruled today that obesity can, under certain circumstances, be considered a disability, taking a step forward against obesity discrimination, experts say.

The European Court of Justice heard the case of a child-care worker identified in the ruling as "Mr. Kaltoft," who claimed he had been fired from his job because of his weight. The court ruled that although obesity was itself not a disability, it can cause certain hindrances that can be considered a disability.

"In the past, employers have said with respect to obesity, 'Well, this is their fault,'" said Ted Kyle, chairman of the nonprofit Obesity Action Coalition, which is headquartered in Florida. Until now, employers did not feel obligated to accommodate obese employees in the workplace because they deemed that being obese was a personal choice, Kyle noted.

He said various genetic and environmental factors are at play when it comes to obesity, and that employers are realizing they can't discriminate people based on weight.

The European Court of Justice ruled that it was for the national court to determine whether Kaltoft's obesity qualifies as a disability -- analogous to the U.S. Supreme Court tossing a case back to the a lower state court to hash out the details.

Though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said obesity only meets the definition of disability in some cases. In most cases, it does not meet the definition and the legal cases that hinge of obesity as a disability are generally not successful.

"The plaintiff must prove that his or her obesity is disabling or perceived to be disabling by others," Puhl said.

Kelly Brownell, a professor at Duke University's Stanford School of Public Policy, said although some people may not want to be labeled as having a disability, he thinks the move is positive and puts Europe ahead of the United States.

"My perspective on this is that it's a good idea because there's very clear research showing that overweight people are discriminated against in most settings where there have been studies," Brownell said, pointing toward studies in education, health care and employment.