Thanks to decent diet and exercise, my weight is right where it should be, and it has been for years. But if it weren't, one of the best places for me to work now might be Washington--on July 11, that state's Supreme Court added obesity as a protected class under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD).

Now, to clarify, both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and WLAD are designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace. But ADA focuses on whether you have a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities." WLAD prevents discrimination based on sensory, mental, or physical disabilities, but it also protects people for issues that have nothing to do with being disabled, such as your sexual orientation, race, and marital status. So its discrimination protections are broader. 

The new Supreme Court ruling means Washington employers now have to consider obesity as an impairment, the same as, for example, epilepsy, blindness, or multiple sclerosis. And since obesity is identified as an impairment, you have to make reasonable accommodations to enable individuals with weight concerns to do their job. The rationale was that the medical community recognizes obesity as a physiological disorder.

On the one hand, this is fabulous news. Some of the most creative, skilled, and passionate people I know are on the heavy side, and the ruling ensures they'll have a fairer shot at getting a great job and proving their talent. And generally, I believe companies who can set aside biases--weight-related or otherwise--open themselves up to a much broader pool of people who can contribute. Discrimination is always an ugly thing, and now other states have a precedent to ban even more of it.

But here's my issue. A disability generally is seen as something beyond an individual's control. For example, I didn't choose to be a little person, just the same as someone else doesn't choose to lose a limb in an accident or suffer from a heart defect. And much of the time, obesity is similar, too. We know, for example, that genetics can influence weight, as can medications for other serious conditions.

But sometimes, weight issues are a choice. Many people who do not have genetic or other medical concern can opt for a lean turkey sandwich and salad for lunch rather than a burger and fries, for example. They can choose to turn off the TV and go for a walk.

And then there's a fuzzy middle ground. Consider, for example, people in food deserts. These individuals might want to eat well and not necessarily have physiological reasons for easy weight gain, but they might not have access to healthier, lower-calorie options. And some groups of people, such as African Americans and Hispanics, are thought to have higher rates of obesity at least in part because of income and other social disparities that influence food selection and exercise, regardless of genetic components. So while they technically are deciding what to eat, it would be tough to consider them completely at fault.

It gets even more complicated when you consider that, for many people, obesity isn't at all prohibiting. Some individuals are what doctors controversially refer to as "fat but fit," meaning that while they have an "abnormal" weight, they exercise regularly and have good metabolic health, performing most if not all daily tasks with total independence. In fact, some of them are out there running marathons. If the definition of a true disability is that it limits daily activities, then these individuals should not be classed as impaired.

So the basic question is, how can a law lump all these circumstances together?

My take is, you can't.

Does that mean you should be allowed to discriminate against heavier people? Nope. In that sense, I think the ruling is beneficial, given that well over a third of Americans (39.8 percent) now fall under the obese label. But to identify all cases of obesity as a disability might reveal a bias by itself, and it does not recognize the incredibly complicated nature of weight abnormalities and their causes. The closer we get to doing that, the closer we get to having truly appropriate accommodations and being able to attack health more successfully overall.

Published on: Jul 23, 2019
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