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Obesity Qualifies as a Disability under the ADA

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A consensus has developed in the federal courts that obesity qualifies as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even in the absence of an underlying physical impairment. While the ADA does not explicitly say whether obesity is a disability, Congress broadened the definition of “disability” in the 2009 amendments to the ADA. Several jurisdictions interpret the language in the amendments to mean that severe obesity is a protected “disability,” so that employers may not take adverse actions against an employee based on the employee’s actual or perceived obesity, and are required to offer reasonable accommodations, if needed, to the disabled employee.

Discrimination based on an employee’s weight can come in subtle forms. For example, a supervisor may tease the employee in front of his or her coworkers or require an employee to take medical leave because of the employee’s weight, which may interfere with the employee’s performance of his or her job duties. In addition, an employer may terminate an overweight employee because his or her medical expenses are financially burdensome to the employee health insurance plan.

This trend in recognizing obesity as a legally protected disability enjoys international support. In a recent decision, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s top human rights court, ruled that obese workers can be considered disabled under European anti-discrimination laws if an employee’s obesity hinders “full and effective participation of that person in professional life on an equal basis with other workers.”

Meanwhile, some state legislatures in the United States—where almost 1 in 3 adults is obese, according to the World Health Organization—have enacted laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on a person’s weight. More states may soon follow, given that the American Medical Association recently for the first time recognized obesity (at any level of severity) as a disease. At the same time, a new study found that almost 75% of people support adding body weight as a protected characteristic under anti-discrimination laws.

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