We’ve just had what I consider a victory in unlawful firing of a woman for being “severely obese”. Lisa Harrison was fired for being severely obese, despite being able to perform the essential functions of her job. Her employer – Family House of Louisiana, a facility that treats chemically dependent women – will pay $125,000 to settle a disability discrimination suit that was filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Sadly Ms. Harrison passed away before the suit was filed.
The court approved the settlement saying “severe obesity may qualify as a disability regardless of whether it is caused by a physiological disorder…neither the EEOC nor the Fifth Circuit have ever required a disabled party to prove the underlying basis of their impairment.” (It would seem that her employers tried to argue that since her obesity was her own fault – lack of willpower blah blah blah – she should not be protected)
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said “All people with a disability who are qualified for their position are protected from unlawful discrimination. Severe obesity is no exception. It is important for employers to realize that stereotypes, myths, and biases about that condition should not be the basis of employment decisions.”
I’m not super excited about body size being considered a “condition” but I’ll take it.
Jim Sacher (who I could kiss right on the mouth) said “Employers cannot rely on unfounded prejudices and assumptions about the capabilities of severely obese individuals. Despite performing her job for years, Ms. Harrison was terminated without warning and without any evidence that she could not perform the essential functions of her position. This case highlights the fact that severely obese people who can do their jobs are every bit as protected by the ADA as people with any other qualifying disability. Any notion that these individuals are not protected, based on the wrongheaded idea that their condition is self-inflicted, is simply wrong and without legal basis.”
I am extremely happy to know that we are making headway in being protected from being fired because we’re fat. I’m not sure I’m comfortable that it’s under the Americans with Disabilities Act and not employment non-discrimination legislation. I have some questions:
There are lots of ways that being classified as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act can be helpful in a fat phobic culture, in areas including hiring, public transportation, and more.
I don’t know what they consider to be “severe obesity”, but I’m pretty sure I’m it. At 5’4 and almost 300 pounds I’m as fat as you can get in the BMI Categories – Type 3: Super Obese (which, it turns out, does not come with a cape and a secret identity – but I’m learning to live with disappointment.) But when it comes to physical ability I’m in the top 5% of Americans in strength, stamina and flexibility. So what would that mean for me – can I be fired because I’m fat with no ADA recourse? Or would I be considered “disabled” strictly because of my weight.
I’m not worried about being called “disabled”, I don’t feel that it’s stigmatizing because, just like we come in different sizes, bodies come with different potential and limitations and there should be no shame or judgment in that. I do worry about offending people – people who deal with disabilities who would justifiably pissed if I claimed to be disabled because of my weight between doing jete leaps and the splits, with no physical limitations. I can also see the argument that it’s not my actual abilities, but my employer’s perception of me as disabled that offers me the protection.
I’m interested to see where this is going but I think it is extremely good to hear a government agency pointing out the fact that fat people are subject to being judged based on stereotypes, prejudices, myths and biases rather than our actual abilities, and admitting that larger bodies aren’t just the result of lazy people who lack willpower. That’s a giant step in the right direction.
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