Is Obesity a Disability According to Workplace Discrimination Law?
Some employers take one look at an overweight person and assume he cannot do his job. This is discrimination based on the belief that that individual is in some way disabled. Those who are overweight should be protected against this.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), an individual can be considered to have a disability if he has an impairment that limits one (or more) of his major life activities.
Under these terms, it’s easy to see how morbid or severe obesity could be considered a disability. Being morbidly obese makes many types of physical movements difficult. Certainly, obesity is a disability. The trick part is determining at what point it is.
Where is the Line Drawn?There are specific suggestions, such as being 100 percent over normal body weight or having a BMI of over 35, but the ADA does not specify. The problem with using weight or BMI as a metric is that they both would consider the likes of NFL linemen to be obese. Obviously, muscular athletes are not disabled.
Towards the other end of the spectrum, carrying a few extra pounds shouldn’t count as a disability, either. Roughly 35 percent of the adult population in the US is obese, while only about 7 percent are morbidly obese. Herein lies the grey area.
Reasonable AccommodationAll people with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations by their employers to support their safety. Examples of a reasonable accommodation for an overweight person include a sturdier chair, if office chairs could not support him or her safely, the elimination of certain tasks requiring high levels of physical exertion, additional handicapped spaces, and specially made uniforms.
Even if common obesity is not recognized as a disability, as morbid obesity is, it seems likely that employers will eventually need to provide reasonable accommodations for all overweight employees. Disability or not, all people deserve to be treated with respect and not judged by their outward appearance.
Dan A. Atkerson is a Dallas employment lawyer who believes that no person should face discrimination in the workforce. He strives every day to help people fight back when this happens.