Doctors Fight Labeling Obesity a Disability

As a nurse, Davis said she's well aware that many insurance companies do not offer general obesity counseling unless there's a co-morbid condition or a patient is approved for surgery. But she said she'd rather see that issue handled with anti-discrimination laws than under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I think it makes more sense where we don't discriminate against someone for their sex, for their ethnic basis, and for their size," Davis said. "If we were to say, 'Well, if somebody's of a certain size then we are considering that as part of the disability act,' you set up a resentful atmosphere."

Yet while doctors and obese patients are concerned about the label "disabled," lawyers who specialize in obesity suits said many people are missing the point.

The Term 'Disabled' Used Broadly Under the Law

"There isn't one paramount definition of disability from a legal standpoint," said Walter Lindstrom of the Obesity Law and Advocacy Center -- a private firm in the San Diego area that specializes in "fighting for the rights of people of size to receive equal access to health care and be free of discrimination in life."

Lindstrom explained that a disability label from a social security benefits point of view would require different criteria than a disability label from an insurance point of view, or disability as classified under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Each "disability" label also wins a person different rights. According to Lindstrom, the Americans With Disabilities Act covers civil rights protections such as employer discrimination more than compensation benefits.

"You're talking about disability with a small 'd' and disability with a capital 'D,'" Lindstrom said.

"The problem that the AMA resolution has in all honesty is that they fundamentally don't understand disability law: Very few medical conditions are a disability by definition," he said.

Getting a disabled label under the Americans With Disabilities Act requires a person to prove their condition has a physical impairment that also puts substantial limitations on major life activities, Lindstrom said.

However Lindstrom said no two obese people are alike: One obese person might have health issues serious enough to be labeled disabled, while another obese person might not qualify.

"You could have that same scenario with people who suffer from certain joint conditions, brain conditions or diabetes," Lindstrom explained. "It's not like there's a laundry list of diseases to fill in the disability boxes -- the AMA knows that and in my mind this is a little bit of grandstanding."

Lindstrom also thought the move might be "self-protective."

But the Obesity Action Coalition had a less intense reaction.

"As a coalition of those affected, the OAC encourages discussion around this topic of obesity and disability, as it is not clearly defined and is not simple. The determination of obesity should be based on scientific and medical factual data and not fear of litigation," OAC executive director Joseph Nadglowski wrote in statement responding to the AMA vote.

"Every individual who is affected by obesity is not disabled, but this does not mean that obesity does not and cannot contribute to disability," the statement said.

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