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Weighing up the responsibility: Should obesity be classed as a disability?

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By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+

Last updated on 16-Jun-2014 at 15:53 GMT

Obesity as a disability

If the European Court redefines obesity as a disability, the rules of responsibility could shift horribly away from the parties involved - including the food industry.   

A team of frontier lawyers are set to take a test case to the European Courts of Justice – questioning whether a 25 stone Danish man's dismissal from his post as a babysitter was in line with laws protecting those with disabilities.

But what would such a ruling mean for our food and health culture? Could it spell a divergence in responsibility for all players involved – including the food industry?

Testing the system

Karsten Kaltoft was dismissed from his job because of his weight – the children’s parents said he was too big to bend down to tie the children’s shoe laces. He says his weight - a result of "bad habits" - did not effect his ability to do his job. 

Now, a team of lawyers are taking his test case to the European Courts of Justice, asking if labour-market discrimination on the grounds of obesity is not contrary to EU law. The case is set to decide whether obesity should be classed as a disability, and therefore covered by the European Union's Employment Equality Directive . The outcome will be pan-EU and mean an extension of discrimination laws that already say conditions resulting from obesity, like diabetes, are covered. 

Taking responsibility

In order to think about the consequences of such a ruling, we must first look at the parties it would affect. Who is ‘responsible’ for obesity? The individual who buys the food; the state which sets the guidelines and the medical and school-time agenda; the media which often directs the tone of the discussion; or the food industry which has the propensity to wield great or terrible change?

According to recent data, nearly 30% of the world’s population are either obese or overweight. I’m of the stance that a holistic approach should be taken to bring these levels down. This means that it’s not just a case of personal sloth, ignorance or misinformation, nor solely a failing on the part of state authorities governing health, education and industry regulation, nor is it driven uniquely by profiteering food and marketing firms. For me obesity is above all a cultural problem – it’s about our food (and exercise) attitude and all these players feed into this gross ethos.

But in whose lap would the responsibility for obesity land if we were to consider it as a disability? Would we begin to consider it as inescapable? Cultural shifts do so often follow legal changes whether straight or a few generations after.

Debilitating, but not a disability

A disability in a more traditional sense like autism, deafness or cerebral palsy is something we make adaptations for, to support and integrate that individual. And rightly so, we should do that more, I think. But surely that’s different. We make such adjustments because there is little to nothing we can do about these disabilities. A child born with cerebral palsy will always have cerebral palsy.

In this respect diet-induced obesity should be considered as debilitating, but not as a disability. To consider it as a disability is to suggest there is nothing we can do about it, which would be a crying shame for the overweight individual and the society which carries its heavy cultural and financial burden.  

The individual can make lifestyle changes, the state should provide help in facilitating this and the food industry can do more to reformulate and ensure products are marketed responsibly. 

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