Few conversations about disability discrimination draw sharper reactions than whether obesity is – or should be – a disability that triggers a right to workplace accommodation. Some see obesity as a purely self-induced condition. Others say that if obesity is a “disability,” then we’re all disabled, and anyone will be able to demand special treatment on the job.
Generally, obesity is not been treated as a disability under anti-discrimination laws. Some judges have openly scoffed at claims of obesity as a disability that would require employers to make special accommodations. (It’s similar to the judicial reaction to claims by smokers that they qualify for such protection.) But last month, in December 2011, a federal judge in Louisiana held that a fired employee could proceed with her disability case because her obesity was in fact a disability. That employee weighed 400 pounds at the time of hire, and weighed 527 pounds at the time she was fired. The ruling can be read by clicking here, if you’re interested: Obesity Ruling.
Since our system of justice is based on precedent – where future judges look to and often rely on prior rulings from other judges – the Louisiana case may well be used by other judges around the country. For now, it’s hard to predict whether other courts will follow it. It’s even hard to say whether this ruling itself will survive challenge. It may be appealed and overturned. But even if it does survive a challenge, and obesity becomes a recognized disability, it might not be the end of the world as employers fear it. According to recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 34.2% of U.S. adults aged 20 years and over are technically overweight. Another 33.8% are obese. But only 5.7% are extremely obese. It is in that low-percentage category where this claim fell, and most others would likely arise.
Keep in mind that obesity, especially morbid or extreme obesity, is often accompanied by high-risk medical conditions (e.g., diabetes; high blood pressure; stroke; heart attack). And simple overeating is just one cause of obesity. There are many others, including physiological and psychological conditions beyond the control of the individual. While obesity is often thought of as something entirely of our own doing, it often isn’t. Perhaps the Louisiana ruling reflects a view that obesity can in some cases be more than overeating, and can justify legal protection depending on the facts.