Victory for Fat Employee

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.”

The full press release is here.

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.

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on April 16, 2012 at 8:09 am  Comments (23)  

23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve always been bothered as well by the idea of classifying fat people as disabled when, as you’ve said, those things do not go hand in hand (unlike, for instance, paraplegia which would be far more overlapping on the ven diagram). What I love about where you’ve taken this is that it’s about the employer’s perception of a fat person as disabled that makes them justified in claiming protection under the act. That’s a fascinating twist that I had not considered but that lends powerful protection to the idea without claiming that all fat people are disabled or that fat people who use that argument don’t have different abilities than people who are more classicly considered disabled. Anyway, I really like where you’ve gone with this.

    (side note: pardon me if any of that came out offensively – I surely didn’t intend it to be so, but talking about this issue, and kudos to Ragen for doing so with such tact, is challenging in a word-picking sense)

  2. It’s interesting, because ADA rulings are typically predicated on the general understanding of disability, that is the medical model where disability is a problem with the person. And on that basis, I’m not cool with fatness being labeled a disability at all.

    But under the social model of disability I can definitely see where many of us, especially those of us who are Super Fats (dammit, I want my cape too) could qualify. Systemic barriers limiting our ability to do and go as we please? Definitely. Negative attitudes towards our bodies? Everywhere we go, all day, every day. Exclusion from the mainstream of society? All day, every day.

    It makes me want to delve into the rationale on the ruling a little further.

    It also makes me wonder if this opens the door (and I think that it could) for fat folks to request workplace accommodations, like chairs suited to their size/weight, which can be costly, as a “reasonable accommodation” for disability under ADA protections. Again, not the preferred route, but if it provides a means to make our work lives better, do we exploit it or shy away?

    Lots of food for thought.

    • Amadi, this is interesting because I know there’s been at least one employee at my company whose supervisors were obliged to get her a different chair because she was above the manufacturers’ specified weight limit. I seem to recall it came under, not disability accommodation, but Health and Safety – obviously it’s a safety risk if an employee is sitting in a chair not made to support their weight. I’m in the UK, though, and I’m not sure what US H&S rules are like, but I wonder if that might be another possible way to go on something like that.

  3. Under the ADA, there is a 3-pronged definition of disability:

    1) A “substantial impairment” in a major life function,
    2) A history of such impairment, or
    3) Being regarded as having such an impairment.

    The third prong, I think, is where able-bodied fatties can reasonably make challenges under the ADA.

    There are also those of us who have a disability, are fat, and the two may be perceived by the current medical model to be related – in which case the ADA should definitely apply.

    This is where “the establishment” doesn’t get to have it both ways. If you medicalize obesity, then it’s a disability and fatties are entitled to ADA protection from discrimination. If you don’t, then you’ve got no proof that it drives up anyone’s health care costs or otherwise negatively affects anyone’s ability to do their job, in which case it’s also not valid to discriminate based on weight.

    • I agree with this interpretation of the ruling. You do not actually have to be disabled to be covered by the ADA. When the employer shows that they regard you as disabled, you gain that protection.

  4. I’m a little worried this could back-fire. Apply to be a waitress? Sorry, your disability prohibits you from performing this job.
    It could protect people from losing their current job, but I can see it being used to discriminate in hiring without getting in trouble.

    • In cases like that they are probably already turning people down for jobs, I’m long term unemployed and fat, they don’t have to say I’m too fat, they just employ someone else, if they don’t and re-advertise then they can say they didn’t think my qualifications were good enough when they looked at them again or that I don’t have enough experience. In practical terms all I know is I didn’t get the job.

      If this stops people losing jobs for the way they look then it’s a good thing

  5. My response was going to be..”hey I am not disabled!” But the comments so far are making me look at things from a different perspective. Thank-you as always to Ragen and her faithful readers for delving beyond the superficial to the structures and constructs beneath this ruling.

  6. http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2011/01/woman_says_she_was_fired_for_b.html?mobRedir=false

    I was curious about the case and found this article. It provides a little more information, but it is a newspaper article and can’t be taken as the full truth. Also, many of the comments are pretty ignorant. These same people who feel this woman “made a choice” and doesn’t deserve anyone standing up for her would likely want the EEOC to stand up for them if they were fired because of their religion (a choice) or if their husband was fired after crashing his motorcycle (also a choice).

  7. 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.

    The thing about the above quote – there are quite a few disabled people out there who are protected from being fired and their disabilities are self-inflicted – drunk drivers who got in an accident and were severely injured as a result are just one example, there are others. So if those people are protected, even though their disabilities were caused by their own poor choices, why shouldn’t fat people be protected from the same kind of discrimination, when our size isn’t really a “choice” we can control, in spite of what everyone who isn’t fat thinks they “know”?

    • You know, I can’t help but wonder, with what other traits do people who do not possess that trait truly believe they understand the experience better? Obviously body size is one. Assault survivors also come to mind, since people are constantly victim-blaming and going on about how “She shouldn’t have worn this” or “she shouldn’t have talked to that guy, he was obviously shady” etc. as if they themselves were in the same situation and did something magical that got them home safely.

      And more to the point… what is WITH that? Where do people get off thinking they understand an experience better than the person experiencing it? I guess people just figure if they put enough words in our mouths, they won’t have to bother listening to what we’d actual say.

      • I think that people also really like to think that they’re completely in control of their own lives. If they see someone else living through an uncomfortable experience they’ll twist themselves in knots in order to explain how THEY would never LET themselves get into that uncomfortable experience. So if you are experiencing that discomfort, then you must have done something wrong to deserve it.

  8. I’m not sure how I feel about obesity being considered a disability. It seems like it could be a both good and bad thing. When it comes to disabilities in general, it can be hard to find and keep work at all. A lot of employers will turn away job seekers by looking at their medical history, even if they are able to perform the job.

  9. Is it just me, or is it really brutal that anybody can be fired at no notice, for no particular reason? Maybe that’s a non-US perspective, but to me the answer is to give workers some basic rights.

    • I’m in the UK, bodytruth, but I work with a bunch of Americans, and I get the impression that employees are way less likely to belong to a trade union in the US than here, and the idea of unionisation is that much less popular. (I know there are historical reasons for this, but I’m unclear on exactly what they are – can any US person help out?) Certainly we owe a lot of what are now seen as very basic rights, like paid holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, limits on working hours, not to mention the right to contest unfair dismissal, to the actions of unions over the years, so that might have something to do with it.

      • In Wisconsin, unions have been threatened even more. The governor who was voted in during the fall of 2010 decided that the first thing he would do after getting into office would be to end the collective bargaining rights of state union workers. So, big bruhaha here about all that and he’s actually up for recall.

        The whole disability thing is tricky. I’m considered disabled because of my hearing loss but I had, in the past (my hearing has worsened in the last ten years though so it’s been a little harder), I had adapted but my speech got in the way of a lot of opportunities I would have had if I had spoken well (and my speech was due to my hearing loss). I grew up with a mother who raised me no differently than her other kids but felt I should get whatever money I should get when it came time for that (not SSI but assistance from the department of vocational rehabilitation). Even there, it’s kind of tricky because on one hand, I can work but on the other, I’m totally reliant on my hearing aids in order to be successful in a job. I worry about my weight too in as far as it keeping me from getting a job, especially as I prepare to go back out into the workforce but I also worry that being out of work for the last seven years to be a stay at home mom will do it too. *sigh*

    • “At will” employment is what that type of employment is called. It also allows the employee to leave at any time for any reason. This is in contrast to a contracted employee who cannot be let go as easily, but also has more restrictions on being able to leave. This is the norm here in California, and in many other states in the US, though not all.

      As for unions, there are many workers rights that were first won by unionized workers (child labor restrictions, work days/hours per week, etc) that have since been codified into our laws. Unions can be helpful, but many of them have morphed into, effectively, a second employer for many people. A lot of professions (teacher, hospital worker, plumber, and more) are ones that *require* a person to join the union in order to even look for work, or the place they get hired may be a “closed shop” where they have to join the union as part of working there. This means they automatically lose part of their wages to union dues, and they have no choice to leave the union if they feel their rep is not fulfilling their duties.

      I have a number of family members who have had bad experiences with the union they were forced to join in order to work at a given place of employment. The union rep at best was no help in a complaint against management, and at worst actively worked with management against the employee(s).

  10. “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.)” bwahahahaha… Ragen, I <3 you!

  11. The label “disability” can be really hard to hear. About ten years ago, I filled out a form at the beginning of a standardized test and discovered that according to the people giving the test, I have “multiple disabilities.” I have an assortment of hearing issues — 40% hearing loss plus a processing disorder — and some mobility issues from a botched foot surgery. However, I was absolutely spitting mad at the idea that anyone would describe me as “disabled.”

    I was very, very resistant to the word. Then a deaf friend called me on my attitude. “Are you saying that being disabled is something bad? That it makes you somehow less? Do you think I am less because I cannot hear? Are you just too GOOD to be considered disabled?” I was taken aback. She had me.

    The third part of the ADA definition describes the situation of fat people very well: we are perceived as being unable, and that perception is the excuse for discrimination. It’s not too different from another deaf friend who kept getting fired from jobs (thirty years ago, before the ADA) after employers figured out that she was deaf. She was a superb lip reader with excellent speaking skills, but as soon as they found out she couldn’t hear, they’d fire her. She wasn’t UNable, she was DISabled by their perceptions.

    I say, if the ADA makes people behave decently despite their stupid prejudices, I’m glad it’s there. And yes, I’m disabled and I’m just as good as anyone else.

  12. I’m a Certified Interior Designer. When I sat for my exam most or all of it focused on ADA requirements for interior spaces. There are pages and pages of ADA requirements for interior (and exterior) spaces. They deal with clearances for people in wheelchairs, people with broken legs or arms, hearing impaired, seeing impaired, people with arthritis and anyone else that isn’t “average.” The purpose of these codes isn’t to single anyone out. The purpose is to allow people who aren’t “average” to go about their business like the “average” person does. As a designer I have to recognize that there are people that are different from average and I need to accommodate for this in my design.

    People of size sometimes have requirements (chairs, clearances, etc) that are not “average.” If this law can be used to force employers to make accommodations for a different body size then I think it’s great. I wouldn’t feel singled out for needing this. When I was pregnant with twins I did need a lot of accommodations. The changes were made and I went on with my business just like everyone else! I hope that makes sense…

  13. There are many times where one person might experience disability from a condition and another person does not. It would be like firing someone because you found out that they had depression or MS or anything else. I don’t think it is totally unfair to lump body size into this because sometimes body size does disable people, and folks need to be accomodated in those cases. It doesn’t have to disable the majority of people to “count”.

  14. 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.

    For me, this is the interesting part of the decision. Because how many disabled people are disabled because of bad decisions they made? How many people are disabled because they took risks with their lives that could have been avoided? Those disabilities could be considered “self-inflicted”, and if obesity, which is considered “self-inflicted” by the majority of society, isn’t covered by the ADA, then every person who became disabled because of their risk-taking stupidity shouldn’t be covered either – if zie got drunk and drove a car, wrecked it, and became disabled because of that wreck, that’s self-inflicted disability. Anyone who partook in an extreme sport and became disabled as a result of an accident in that sport could have their disability considered “self-inflicted”. That’s really not a road anyone wants to go down, but it is one that needs to be considered in light of how being fat is considered a malleable condition that is “self-inflicted” and supposedly affects a fat person’s ability to have any sort of decent life at all, let alone a job, respect, or dignity.
    Since I’m also a fat woman who is disabled, I don’t have any problem with fat people who aren’t disabled using the ADA as protection against discrimination in the workplace (or anywhere else, for that matter).

    • One of the worst trainers I ever seen (thankfully I didn’t have him training me) has a missing arm due to an accident he caused because he didn’t listen to instructions. The guy wasn’t even particularly good at his job, but his missing arm meant he couldn’t do the work he was originally qualified for and had to be retrained. But this guy felt he knew enough to tell me I should be locked in a room and fed lettuce until I became a weight he approved of.

      Even before I found size acceptance and HAES I could smell the bullshit. (Oh and at the time I was walking and cycling everywhere)


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