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Obesity: Disability?

Updated on February 27, 2009

As a student of psychology I took a required course in which one group of discussions centered on disabilities. What they are, how to work with them, and what it means for those persons who are disabled.

One particular discussion that came up in this context was obesity. People debated the nature and validity of obesity as a disability.

Please note: this hub is not meant to be offensive or discriminatory. Among budding professionals in the field of psychology, the topic was debated, and I found it eminently interesting.  I have done my best to provide a succint and balanced view. 


What Do You Think?

Is Obesity a Disability?

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What is a Disability?

The United States Department of Labor defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities (for example, caring for one's self, speaking, breathing, or learning)." 

The DOL also notes that "a disability need not be obvious; such conditions as learning disabilities, psychological illnesses, asthma, or infection with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) may qualify as disabilities under the law."

This definition of disability is well-accepted and is used widely in the enforcement of laws relating to disabilities. 


What is Obesity?

Obesity is generally defined by constructing a ratio of a person's weight to his/her height.  The most popular way to do this is by calculating a person's Body Mass Index (BMI).  Typically, a BMI of 30.0 or greater is considered "obese."

Below is a table which indicates one's BMI based on height and weight.  If an individual is in the orange or red categories, he or she is generally considered to be obese. 

Put Them Together

As an illustration, consider an individual who is 5'7" and weighs 215 pounds.  This individual may well not be hindered whatsoever by his or her weight; they can fit in typical chairs, may not have difficulty finding clothing that fits, can still walk and use instruments like pens, and are generally not in need of special accommodation.

Thus, it seems that this person's obesity itself is not a disability.

Consider, however, and individual who is extremely obese - to the degree that he or she cannot walk or bathe themselves.  This seems to fall under the category of disability as defined above, since they are physically impaired or limited in participating in major life activities: breathing, self-care, and etc.

The American Obesity Association notes that, while the obesity itself may not present a problem for many, the complications which arise from obesity may settle in after years of being significantly overweight, and the AOA defines obesity as a disease.

Given this, it seems clear that even if obesity is not always or necessarily a disability, it can be a disability. 

The Debate: A Compromise?

Still, in my class, a heated debate ensued as to whether or not obesity truly qualifies as a disability.

Some individuals contended that obesity is not  a genuine disability because obese persons "bring it on themselves"; they choose not to exercise and choose to eat poorly, knowing full well that these actions will lead to obesity and all the corollory difficulties.

Others felt that obesity is a disease in the same sense that many mental illnesses are and, therefore, should be treated equivalently to a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder or substance addiction.

(There were of course, those in the middle, but they're not as interesting.) 

When the dust settled, there was only one compromise that seemed available at the time. Nearly all agreed that obesity is a disability and requires the full enforcement of the law to prevent discrimination and to allow persons who are obese to continue to receive aid and, especially, to be fully employed and contributing members of society.

Additionally,it seemed important to consider obesity as a different kind of disability than, say, a person whose leg is amputated or a blind individual.  Unlike nearly all other incidences or diseases which result in disability (the most obvious exception being substance dependency), the disabled individual chooses repeatedly, every day, to continue being obese -- they make decisions which they know for certain will maintain their disability.

I happen to generally agree with that, including the caveat that, for me, this is only a significant distinction in that - as a therapist - there is an opportunity for this person to make different choice and shed him or her self of disability.


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