Obesity Likely to Become ‘Disability’ Under ADA

Obese man's stomach


The American Medical Association last month voted to classify obesity as a disease, a move lawyers say will likely expand the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) further.


AMA Catches Up

“[T]he AMA [has] adopted policy that recognizes obesity as a disease requiring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention,” according to a news release about the AMA’s annual meeting, where the vote took place.

Better dialogue between patients and doctors, earlier intervention to prevent the disease, and greater investment in research into its causes are a few of the benefits the AMA says will result from the designation.

The AMA’s decision was a long time coming, says Ted Kyle, who chairs the Obesity Society’s advocacy committee. “They took their time accepting that obesity is a disease, staying on the sidelines for about 15 years after the National Institutes of Health . . . and others recognized that obesity is a serious chronic disease,” he says. “In essence, AMA was the last big holdout.”

“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” said AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D.

It will also change the way the legal community sees it.


Expanding the Definition of ‘Disability’

“Conventional wisdom has been that normal, run-of-the-mill obesity, unlinked to an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, is not a disability protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” writes Jon Hyman in a blog post.

“This decision by the AMA, however, will likely flip that conventional wisdom on its head,” Hyman continues. “The ADA, as amended in 2009, is so broad that it covers virtually any diagnosed medical condition as a ‘disability.’”

“Now, employers will have to consider reasonable accommodations for anyone with a body mass index of 30 or over,” Hyman says. “Also, anyone who appears to have that BMI will have potential protections from terminations and other adverse actions related to that perceived ‘disease.’”

The 2009 amendments to the ADA broadened the definition of “disability,” in response to court rulings and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations that tied the definition to whether a condition had a long history of acceptance as a disability.

Under the amended ADA, employers cannot discriminate against someone with a disability or an “impairment.” Then in 2011, Congress amended the ADA again to protect morbidly, or severely, obese people, who are 100 percent or more above the average.


EEOC Already Protecting ‘Severely’ Obese

Attorney Ted Kyle headshot

Ted Kyle

The EEOC has already been treating “severe obesity” – defined as having a BMI of 40 or above, or a BMI of 35 in addition to an underlying condition like diabetes – as covered under the ADA, having settled two major discrimination cases in 2012 involving obese workers who’d been fired because of their weight.

In one case, a Louisiana treatment center for chemically dependent women agreed to pay $125,000 after firing a severely obese woman who died before her case was filed.

“In 2012, after winning settlements with employers for discrimination against employees with severe obesity, David Lopez, General Counsel of the EEOC made a rare direct comment,” notes Kyle.  

“All people with a disability who are qualified for their position are protected from unlawful discrimination,” said Lopez. “Severe obesity is no exception. It is important for employers to realize that stereotypes, myths, and biases about that condition should not be the basis of employment decisions.”

Now those same protections for severe obesity will be likely extended to, as Hyman called it, “run-of-the-mill” obesity in general.


Nobody Chooses Obesity

Kyle acknowledges that many people blame obese people for their condition, “as if they have somehow chosen to have a body of a particular size.”

“This is false,” Kyle says. “Just like any other disease, you might be able to point to something that someone did that contributed to their condition. But nobody ‘deserves’ to suffer the effects of a chronic disease.”

“People find themselves with disabilities for all sorts of reasons. Some might be the result of one’s own mistakes, some are due to the mistakes of others, and some are just plain bad luck or bad genes,” he explains.

“The point here is that what matters under the ADA is whether or not a person is qualified to do the job,” Kyle concludes. “If an employer discriminates against a qualified person because of a disability, that employer is acting unlawfully.”

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