Is obesity considered a disability under the ADA?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately forty percent of American adults are considered obese. In 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease. With the prevalence of obesity in our society, employers may be left wondering if obesity is a disability that must be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The regulations interpreting the ADA state that “[t]he definition of the term “impairment” does not include physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, left-handedness, or height, weight, or muscle tone that are within “normal” range and are not the result of a physiological disorder.” 29 C.F.R. Pt. 1630, App’x § 1630.2(h) (emphasis supplied). That regulation suggests that an individual who is severely or morbidly obese may be disabled within the meaning of the ADA.
Most courts that have considered the issue have concluded that obesity alone is not a disability, but obesity resulting from an underlying medical condition – such as thyroid disease – may be. In addition, employers should keep in mind that obese employees may be able to bring a claim by arguing their employers regarded them as disabled, and any adverse action taken on the basis of that perception could violate the ADA.
Employers therefore should tread cautiously with regard to an obese employee who is having difficulty performing his or her job as the result of their weight. In particular, employers should:
- Ensure that job descriptions are up to date and that all identified essential job functions – including those designed to address safety – are necessary and narrowly tailored to the requirements of the particular job at issue.
- Focus on the essential function of the position. Can the applicant or employee perform those safely either with or without a reasonable accommodation? If a requested accommodation is not onerous, the employer may choose to provide it despite uncertainty about whether the individual is actually disabled under the ADA.
- When in doubt, treat the individual, at least preliminarily, as if he/she has a disability. Do not assume the absence of underlying medical conditions. Engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual has a disability, and do not take any adverse employment action until the individual has had an opportunity to provide relevant facts, including evidence of a disability.
Employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel with any questions regarding ADA reasonable accommodation. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.
About the Author
Amy McAndrew is MEA’s Director of Member Legal Services and has over twenty years of experience as a labor and employment attorney.