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Accommodation of a disability

Is obesity a disability under discrimination law?

This is a developing area of the law. Historically, obese employees have had difficulty convincing judges they were disabled under federal or state laws unless they proved that their obesity was due to a physiological disorder. The courts viewed obesity as a voluntary condition.

In June 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) identified obesity beyond a certain BMI (body mass index) as a disease. The AMA did not go so far as to say obesity itself is a disability. The AMA’s classification of obesity as a disease was not intended to create law. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly have a legal impact on federal employment lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What about Massachusetts law? Massachusetts defines a “handicapped person” as any person who (a) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities (b) has a record of such impairment; or (c) is regarded as having such impairment.

Normal deviations in height, weight, or strength are not considered an impairment. On the other hand, if an employee’s obesity interferes with his or her ability to do her job, the employee may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation, like a larger desk chair, or restrictions on lifting. The employer is not obligated to waive the employee’s duty to perform the essential functions of the job. The employer should have a dialogue with the employee about whether there is a reasonable accommodation that will allow the worker to continue to meet the essential duties.

Pamela A. Smith
Law Office of Pamela A. Smith
233 Needham Street, Suite 540
Newton, MA 02464


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