Obesity As A Disability? Maybe In New York

One of the aspects of civil rights law that can get confusing for non-lawyers is the fact that “civil rights law” includes a myriad of national, state, and local laws that at times work together and at other times do not.  This is particularly true when dealing with local anti-discrimination laws.  But rather than view this legal highway as some complicated maze designed to confuse and discourage the enforcement of rights, I’d like to argue it is just the opposite.

Take for instance recent litigation in New York.  A district court is being asked to decide if the New York Human Rights Act protects obesity, standing alone, as a disability.  The plaintiff in the case has argued that he lost his job as a karate instructor simply for being obese.  Federal disability law does not recognize obesity as a disability, but the language of the New York Human Rights Act just might.

Civil rights advocates and disability law practitioners have argued for decades that the growing conservative bias in the federal courts have all but undone the intended protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Decisions at both the United States Supreme Court and the federal appellate courts have limited the number of cases heard to enforce the protections of the rights of persons with disabilities and limited the awards possible for violations of those rights.  But rather than sit back and take the abuse of judicial discretion at the federal level, activists have responded by making sure protection exists at the local level.

Now, I’m not suggesting that as a per se matter of law obesity should be considered a disability.  Nor am I suggesting that the district judge in this case is going to find that obesity should be considered a disability under the broader New York Human Rights Act.  But what I am drawing attention to is the fact that these definitions can and should be fluid and malleable to adjust to our changing understanding of health and illness.  When either the left or the right stakes a claim to a “pure” understanding of this area of the law, we should view that claim with suspicion because it is, inevitably, shortsighted and self-serving.

And it also completely disregards the appropriate role of the courts in making sure our laws continue to reflect and respect the founding principles of this country–principles that are the very core of civil rights jurisprudence.  Which is why the New York case is such an interesting and important example for us to turn to in remembering that as culture evolves, so too should our laws. 

photo courtesy of Tobyotter via Flickr


LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

Joe R.
Joe R4 years ago

With one out of three American adults obese, this could get out of hand.

Charles Webb
Charles Webb5 years ago

Vegetarianism caused my weight problem. Low carb cured it. I think it's different with women somehow. Don't understand it. Neiher do any of you.

Beng Kiat Low
low beng kiat6 years ago


Carol H.
Past Member 6 years ago

Only and only if there is underlining problem because I just see people getting larger to get money for the decease.

I think that could be a very dangerous idea in so many different ways.

Karen C.
Karen C6 years ago

I think obesity can be a disease so it should be treated as such. I'm talking about morbidly obese people who have other problems such as ADHD, arthritis, heart disease, pulmonary problems.

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba6 years ago

OK I agree with non discrimation and inclusion. Ok maybe obesity and overweight is due to metabolism weight. I was overweight but never obese. I born chubby, put was slim from my preteens to adolescence. I'm almost back to my ideal/perfect weight BMI. Voila!

Nellie K A.
Nellie K Adaba6 years ago

I think obesity is a disease.

Kathy Javens
Kathy Javens6 years ago

being in the nursing profession i have learned a thing or two about obesity. like drugs,alcohol,cigarettes,food can become an addiction. as these people gain more weight,feel guilty,and to make themselves feel better,they turn to food yet again. it is one big,ugly cycle. the obese,morbidly obese,and super morbidly obese need to seek counciling,and drastic life style changes. granted, it will be one of the toughest things they have ever done,but it can be done. if they do not recieve help,the only other road for them is an early death. very sad but true.