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Monday, January 31, 2011

Defining Obesity as a Disability is Wrong

I recently read that that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act against a company for firing an individual because she was obese. I confirmed it on the Commission’s website.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against Resources for Human Development, Inc. (RHD), for firing an employee because of her obesity, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the agency announced today. The case arose from the charge of a former RHD employee, Lisa Harrison, who claimed that RHD fired her from a New Orleans facility because of her disability.

According to the EEOC’s suit (No. 2:10-cv-03322 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana), Harrison began working for RHD in 1999, as a Prevention / Intervention Specialist. Harrison worked with young children of mothers undergoing treatment for addiction. RHD fired Harrison in September of 2007 because of her severe obesity, the suit alleges. Harrison had worked for RHD at a location operating under the name of Family House of Louisiana, in Terrytown, La., a suburb of New Orleans. The EEOC alleges that, as a result of her obesity, RHD perceived Harrison as being substantially limited in a number of major life activities, including walking. Harrison was able, according to the lawsuit, to perform all of the essential functions of her position. Before the EEOC filed suit, Harrison died. Her private interests will be represented in the lawsuit by her estate.

I originally read about this lawsuit in another article that adds an important point: “Prior to this the EEOC only recognized obesity when there was an underlying medical cause or [the condition was] considered morbidly obese. The EEOC now claims that ‘basic obesity’ sufficiently impacts a person’s life activities to qualify as a disability or perceived disability.”

This is yet another sign of the dumbing down of America.

First and foremost, the disability community continues to lie down and play dead as long as no one messes with our benefits. The mere suggestion that obesity should be considered a disability is a slap in the face, if not a big fat loogie, to people with actual physical disabilities.

To be clear, my reading of the above is that the EEOC is seeking to have obesity without any underlying medical cause defined as a disability. In case no one else out there is saying it, let me state the unbelievably obvious:

Getting fat to the point of limiting your mobility is not, I repeat, not, a disability.

Step away from the Cheetos and take a damn walk. Then take another one. Why? Because a) you’re physically capable of it, and b) you’re too frikkin’ fat.

People who have actual physical disabilities do not have a choice to simply get off the couch and shed their disability.

I understand obesity can be a learned behavior. Obese parents often end up with obese kids. Let’s deal with that issue. It certainly deserves treatment. These people need assistance to break the pattern.

But don’t call it a disability. It is simply not the same thing.

Lumping people who have simply made a bad lifestyle choice in with people with disabilities only adds to the struggle the disability community faces in gaining true acceptance by society. As a person with a physical disability, I have believed for quite some time that the categorizing of disability needs to be paired down. This is a move in the absolute wrong direction.

People with physical disabilities who are intact mentally need to be seen as our own group. We are the ones capable of working in professional environments with the right accommodations yet still face physical and attitudinal barriers that can be overcome. We are the group that can take a step up the economic ladder and help people with disabilities gain acceptance as equal members of society. At the same time, we need the protections laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act to gain professional opportunities.

To put more barriers in our way is unacceptable. Whether politically correct or not, lumping someone who uses a wheelchair, has a visual impairment, needs software to effectively use a computer because of problems with motor control, or the like, due to a disability, in with people who became heavy because they ate too much is unfair. It is simply different. It’s a battle we should not have to take on.

I will not give into the notion that people with disabilities are courageous for trying to live as normal a life as possible by going to work and being productive. But the fact is that when we do that, we do it despite a disability. We have not chosen to be disabled.

People who have become obese through lack of exercise and overeating have made a choice. They no doubt face the scorn of those who feel they have created their own problems. To offer them protection under the ADA would only increase public opposition to otherwise justified and appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities.

The actions of the EEOC also hurts society in general. First of all, it’s a lazy response to an issue that does need a solution, but a solution that actually fits the problem. It’s a classic case of “good ‘nough for government work.” Let’s not deal with the nuances of the fact that there are now a lot of people in the workforce who are so heavy that it impacts their job performance. Nope, call it a disability and be done with it.

So, now we’ve almost incentivized getting fat. Get heavy, and collect disability.

Want to talk about wasteful spending?

It doesn’t stop there. Think about the seemingly minor point in the quoted material above – the woman on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed is dead. In other words, this is merely a government agency pursuing something for their own benefit – not to the benefit of any individual.

So, the EEOC stays busy and has an easier time justifying their existence and the salaries of their employees. I’m not suggesting that on the surface the EEOC shouldn’t exist, but they certainly won’t be the only “advocacy group” using the potential defining of obesity as a disability to expand their government funding.

Non-profits that “serve” the disability community would be ecstatic if obesity became a recognized disability. I had the displeasure of working for one. Their main goal, if not their only goal, is to keep themselves funded – at least enough to pay the salaries of their able-bodied employees. Everything after that is, well, gravy.

The EEOC is not serving the disability community or anyone else except the industry that has become advocacy by attempting to define obesity as a disability. The only possible benefit to their irresponsible actions in this case is the addition to the mountain of evidence that the disability community needs to redefine itself – and soon.

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