It is estimated that almost 30% of humans are overweight or obese and this percentage seems likely to increase. Given this large number of large people, it is not surprising that various moral and legal issues have arisen regarding the accommodation of the obese. It is also not surprising that people arguing in favor of accommodating the obese content that obesity is a disability. The legal issues are, of course, simply matter of law and are settled by lawsuits. Since I am not a lawyer, I will focus on the ethics of the matter and will address two main issues. The first is whether or not obesity is a disability. The second is whether or not obesity is a disability that morally justifies making accommodations.
On the face of it, obesity is disabling. That is, a person who is obese will have reduced capabilities relative to a person who is not obese. An obese person will tend to have much lower endurance than a non-obese person, less speed, less mobility, less flexibility and so on. An obese person will also tend to suffer from more health issues and be at greater risk for various illnesses. Because of this, an obese person might find it difficult or impossible to perform certain job tasks, such as those involving strenuous physical activity or walking moderate distances.
The larger size and weight of obese individuals also presents challenges regarding such things as standard sized chairs, doors, equipment, clothing and vehicles. For example, an obese person might be unable to operate a forklift with the standard seating and safety belt. As another example, an obese person might not be able to fit in one airline seat and instead require two (or more). As a third example, an obese student might not be able to fit into a standard classroom desk. As such, obesity could make it difficult or impossible for a person to work or make use of certain goods and services.
Obviously enough, obese people are not the only ones who are disabled. There are people with short term disabilities due to illness or injury. I experienced this myself when I had a complete quadriceps tendon tear—my left leg was locked in an immobilizer for weeks, then all but useless for months. With this injury, I was considerably slower, had difficulty with stairs, could not carry heavy loads, and could not drive. There are also people who have long term or permanent disabilities, such as people who are paralyzed, blind, or are missing limbs due to accidents or war. These people can face considerable challenges in performing tasks at work and in life in general. For example, a person who is permanently confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury will find navigating stairs or working in the woods or working at muddy construction sites rather challenging.
In general, there seems to be no moral problem with requiring employees, businesses, schools and so on to make reasonable accommodations for people who are disabled. The basic principle that justifies that is the principle of equal treatment: people should be afforded equal access, even when doing so requires some additional accommodation. As such, while having ramps in addition to stairs costs more, it is a reasonable requirement given that some people cannot fully use their legs. Given that the obese are disabled, it seems easy enough to conclude that they should be accommodated just as the blind and paralyzed are accommodated.
Naturally, it could be argued that there is no moral obligation to provide accommodations for anyone. If this is the case, then there would be no obligation to accommodate the obese. However, it would seem to be rather difficult to prove, for example, that disabled veterans returning to school should just have to work their way up the steps in their wheelchairs. For the sake of the discussion to follow I will assume that there is a moral obligation to accommodate the disabled. However, there is still the question of whether or not this should apply to the obese.
One obvious way to argue against accommodations for the obese is to argue that there is a morally relevant difference between those disabled by obesity and those disabled by injury, birth defects, etc. One difference that people often point to is that obesity is a matter of choice and other disabilities are not. That is, a person’s decisions resulted in her being fat and hence she is responsible in a way a person crippled in an accident is not.
It could be pointed out that some people who are disabled by injury where disabled as the result of their decisions. For example, a person might have driven while drunk and ended up paralyzed. But, of course, the person would not be denied access to handicapped parking or the use of automatic doors because his disability was self-inflicted. The same reasoning could be used for the obese: though their disability is self-inflicted, it is still a disability and thus should be accommodated.
The easy and obvious reply to this is that there is still a relevant difference. While a person crippled in a self-inflicted drunken crash caused his own disability, there is little he can do about that disability. He can change his diet and exercise but this will not restore functionality to his legs. That is, he is permanently stuck with the results of that decision. In contrast, an obese person has to maintain her obesity. While some people are genetically predisposed to being obese, how much a person eats and how much they exercise is a matter of choice. Since they could reduce their weight, the rest of us are under no obligation to provide special accommodations for them. This is because they could take reasonable steps to remove the need for such accommodations. To use analogy, imagine someone who insisted that they be provided with a Seeing Eye dog because she wants to wear opaque glasses all the time. These glasses would result in her being disabled since she would be blind. However, since she does not need to wear such glasses and could easily do without them, there is no obligation to provide her with the dog. In contrast, a person who is actually blind cannot just get new eyes and hence it is reasonable for society to accommodate her.
It can be replied that obesity is not a matter of choice. One approach would be to argue for metaphysical determinism—the obese are obese by necessity and could not be otherwise. The easy reply here would be to say that we are, sadly enough, metaphysically determined not to provide accommodations.
A more sensible approach would be to argue that obesity is, in some cases, a medical condition that is beyond the ability of a person to control—that is, the person lacks agency in regards to his eating and exercise. The most likely avenue of support for this claim would come from neuroscience. If it can be shown that people are incapable of controlling their weight, then obesity would be a true disability, on par with having one’s arm blasted off by an IED or being born with a degenerative neural disorder. This would, of course, require abandoning agency (at least in this context).
It could also be argued that a person does have some choice, but that acting on the choice would be so difficult that it is more reasonable for society to accommodate the individual than it is for the individual to struggle to not be obese. To use an analogy, a disabled person might be able to regain enough functionality to operate in a “mostly normal” way, but doing so might require agonizing effort that is beyond what could be expected of a person. In such a case, one would surely not begrudge the person the accommodations. So, it could be argued that since it is easier for society to accommodate the obese than it is for the obese to not be obese, society should do so.
There is, however, a legitimate concern here. If the principle is adopted that society must accommodate the obese because they are disabled and they cannot help their obesity, then others could appeal to that same sort of principle and perhaps over-extend the realm of disabilities that must be accommodated. For example, people who are addicted to drugs could make a similar argument: they are disabled, yet their addiction is not a matter of choice. As another example, people who are irresponsible or lazy can claim they are disabled as well and should be accommodated on the grounds that they cannot be other than they are. But, perhaps the line can be drawn in a principle way so that the obese are disabled, but others are not.