Is This Family Too Fat to Work?

The Chawners seem like any other family of four. They enjoy watching soap operas in the evening, and daughter Emma,19, and her father like cooking the odd meal now and then.

But typical they are not: With a combined weight of 1,160 pounds, they are all considered extremely obese, with myriad related health problems.

The family, from Lancashire, England, has also been the focus of heavy criticism, as they live exclusively on $26,000 of yearly, tax-free medical benefits.

In an interview with Closer Magazine this week, Philip Chawner, 53, a former truck driver, claimed that his diabetes was causing him to fall asleep behind the wheel. His wife, Audrey, 57, volunteered at a disabled children's clinic but her epilepsy prevents her from leaving home.

They live in a two-bedroom, government-sponsored apartment that costs $50 a week. A typical diet included bacon sandwiches, known as "bacon butties," and "microwave pies." A typical day involved turning on the television in the morning. Husband and wife weigh 336 pounds each. Emma weighs 238 pounds.

Floundering or Free-Loading?

Soon after the interview was published, subsequent news accounts referred to them as the "free-loading family" and "the real telly-tubbies," among other things.

But daughter Samantha Chawner, 21, did not think the articles were fair at all. She said that the description of their lifestyle was false. For example, they do not solely buy junk food but try to buy fruits and vegetables as well, as much as their budget allows, she said.

"It was full of lies. We thought they [Closer] were doing an article about families on benefits that were looking for jobs. We didn't know they would write such horrible things," she said.

What she does reiterate, however, is that their weight prevents them from getting the jobs. At 252 pounds, the aspiring hairdresser said she has applied for more than 500 positions and most of them fell through. "I got an interview with a couple of them," she said. "But they all turn me down. They can be quite mean about it."

She also receives unemployment checks from the government every two weeks, worth around $100 each.

Overweight and in Pain

While being overweight or obese does not necessarily mean a person is not able to work, Carla Wolper, a nutritionist at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, pointed out that the accompanying health problems, pain and fatigue, can be debilitating.

"When people get very obese and they're older, arthritis or pain in their knees or back may kill them," Wolper said. "They sit around more, so their muscle mass shrinks. If they have sleep apnea they wake up gasping for breath hundreds of times during the night. ... All of these things combine -- pain, shortness of breath, fatigue -- and many of them ultimately can't move around anymore."

Samantha Chawner was careful to mention that her parents spend their days doing house chores, and taking care of their 3-year-old niece. "My dad would like to work again but he can't," she said. "His legs are swollen and he can't walk around. That is why it is hard for him to exercise. He has to be careful about his diabetes and he feels weak a lot."

Public opinion toward the Chawners varies wildly. "It all depends on them, does it? I guess if they have exhausted their choices, then all right," said Pablo, a local Londoner who didn't give a last name. "But, if they are just being lazy, it's not fair on the taxpayers."

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