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Dis-abled or Un-abled?

December 23, 2014

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the difference between disability and discrimination.  Here’s the Associated Press from four days ago:

“Obesity can be a disability, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday — a decision that could have widespread consequences across the 28-nation bloc for the way in which employers deal with severely overweight staff.  The ruling, which is binding across the EU, has such profound implications for employment law that experts expect EU nations to challenge it. The court ruled in the case of a Danish childcare worker Karsten Kaltoft, who weighed 159 kilograms (350 pounds) and said he was unfairly fired for being fat. The ruling said if obesity hinders a ‘full and effective participation in professional life,’ it could count as a disability.”

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has the following definitions of disability:

1. A condition that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities

2. A condition of being unable to do things in the normal way

3. Limitation in the ability to pursue an occupation because of a physical or mental impairment

4. A disqualification, restriction, or disadvantage

One could argue that under these definitions, severe obesity is a disability.  Obesity limits physical abilities, causes people to do things like walking and traveling in an abnormal way, can make certain jobs difficult, and is certainly a disadvantage in many cases.



From → Healthcare

  1. I’ve been thinking we should use the term “potentially disabling conditions.” Most obese people are not disabled. I have two patients (out of thousands) who *are* disabled by their weight–unable to wipe their own selves, having difficulty standing without help–they have no other medical conditions, nothing to qualify them for disability–yet they are completely unable to work. Obesity may be disabling, but if you’re fit, it’s not disabling. It’s potentially disabling. It’s like schizophrenia. Potentially disabling, but with proper treatment, it’s totally controlled, and there’s no disability. I wish that insurers would recognize potentially disabling conditions, and if they are controlled, treat patients as healthy, and if they are uncontrolled, allow patients to claim disability. Let the patients decide if they are healthy or disabled, when they carry the same diagnosis.

    • Interesting idea. The word “control” suggests that the diseases or symptoms are modifiable, unlike, say, paraplegia. To claim disability because a controllable condition is uncontrolled would likely run you into the people who say “you’re not disabled, you just need to behave yourself.” That is why disability is so difficult to separate from judgement or prejudice.

  2. So true that disability is a judgment call–both the patient saying “I’m disabled” and society saying “you’re disabled.’ My morbidly obese patient (BMI = 66) who dislocated her shoulder trying to wipe herself? She was refusing to acknowledge she needed help with activities of daily living, refusing to acknowledge she was disabled (finally, she came to me at her last visit to fill out the paperwork). Discrimination occurs when a person says “I’m able!” while society says “you’re un-able!”
    Different people with the exact same condition objectively controlled equally well may have very different abilities, based on will, pain tolerance, underlying fitness, etc. I think people should be allowed to define for themselves whether they are disabled or no. I try to respect that.

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