Today in a landmark decision a European Union court decided that “obesity”in and of itself does not constitute a disability, but that if it creates a situation that meets the criteria of disability (where, “under particular conditions, it hinders the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers“) then employers must treat it as a disability.
Being the internet, everyone agreed that this is a completely logical decision and moved forward to make appropriate reasonable accommodations for fat employees who meet the definition.
People freaked out about how unfair it is for employers to have to make reasonable accommodations for qualified fat employees instead of just firing them or refusing to hire them in the first place, how being fat shouldn’t constitute a disability because it’s fat people’s own fault that they are disabled and they could lose weight, and the always popular argument that this would promote obesity (because apparently unemployment – and really, making fat people’s lives generally terrible – is the key to future thinness.)
Let’s talk about why this court decision makes perfect sense. For those of us in the States, the ADA definition of disability is very similar to that of the EU:
An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
When it comes to asking whether obesity constitutes a disability, we have to examine the definition of “obesity,” which is someone whose weight in pounds times 703, divided by their height in inches squared is greater than or equal to 30. That definition includes Tom Cruise, The Rock and me among many others. Obviously, not everyone who meets the definition of “obese” (which is deeply problematic in and of itself) is going to meet the definition of “disabled/person with a disability” as defined by the ADA.
This is another area where we find intersectionality between ableism and sizeism. Many fat people may meet the definition, not because they have an impairment but because they are “a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” which is to say that people make all kinds of wild guesses about what fat people are capable of according to their appearance-based stereotypes and bigotry. Also, fat people who have unrelated disabilities often find their disabilities blamed on their body size which can further complicate things.
Let’s examine the common arguments against the court’s decision, starting with the idea that body size can’t be a disability because it is the fat person’s “fault.”
Ignoring the complexity of body size, importantly, nowhere in the ADA definition does it say “unless the impairment is the fault of the person, in which case no accommodations shall be given.” I assume that’s because the idea that we should try to determine if a person’s disability is their fault before providing accommodations that allow them to be a welcome part of society is absolutely horrifying.
Are those who suggest that body size can’t be a disability because it’s the person’s fault also suggesting that we deny accommodations to people who were disabled by car accidents that were their fault? People whose impairment is the result of choosing to be an athlete? What about people whose disabilities are the result of elective weight loss surgery gone terribly wrong (as it so very often does)? If someone meets the ADA definition of disabled/person with disabilities, then they should be covered and there shouldn’t ever be a discussion of fault.
Note that the idea that fat people could lose weight and thus shouldn’t be considered disabled also does not apply here. First, because there isn’t a single study where even a tiny fraction of people have been able to maintain weight loss that would move them from the “obese” category to “normal weight” or even “overweight” long term. But also because the ADA rules apply to the person standing in front of you who meets the definition right now, not the person you think they might someday be who would not.
Finally, onto the “it’s unfair to employers” thing. The idea of providing “reasonable accommodations” is actually about the fact that buildings and businesses are built by people who, either through ignorance or choice, create them as if disabled people/people with disabilities and, often, fat people, don’t exist. Then many of them have to be forced by law to accommodate those who they ignored. And then many of them complain about it and do the bare minimum required by law, thereby missing out on amazing employees and contributing to a society that excludes many people.
So when someone asks me whether or not I think “obesity” is a disability, my answer is basically the same as the EU court. If someone meets the definition of disabled/person with disability, then they should be given reasonable accommodations. Moreover, I would love to be part of a society where businesses (and everyone really) were working hard to destroy the barriers to employment/participation in society, not working hard to justify them.
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