Obesity – The New Disability?

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08 August 2016

A bit over a year ago the European Union’s highest court ruled that obesity could be classified as a disability if it hinders someone’s performance at work.

A bit over a year ago the European Union’s highest court ruled that obesity could be classified as a disability if it hinders someone’s performance at work.

At water-coolers and barbeques, this subject comes up fairly often, especially when a professional accessibility consultant is present. Attitudes towards inclusive and universal design principles for the built environment flow abundantly when the catalyst of conversation is obesity. Understandably, people are confused and generally uninformed when they tend to argue strongly one way or the other and, being addicted to logic, I confess that the consideration is not conclusive.

Following, the EU’s determination, The Herald Sun described the result as “A Big Fat Joke” and went on to flounder in its own definition of disability. The essential basis for their opinion is that obesity is self-inflicted condition and reversible. The article states:

Cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, thalidomide and spina bifida are clear examples where sufferers are limited in their physical functioning by forces beyond their control. However, alcohol, gambling, drug addiction and obesity are regrettable, but they’re not genuine disabilities”, – but the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) does not make these distinctions. Looking at the logic of this statement, there is much to be challenged.

To use a dedicated accessible parking space requires a permit and because the symbol is a wheelchair, many assume that the space is intended and dedicated only for wheelchair users. This is not so. This thinking permeates to the assumption that one requires a permit to use an accessible sanitary facility. This too, is not so. Does this Herald Sun journalist presume that a restaurant owner stops the blind person with an assistance animal at the door and checks their permit, discovers that the blindness was caused by a welding accident while not wearing the goggles? – “no entry – you did that to yourself”. How about the deaf man who lost his hearing working as a rock-band sound engineer? The woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank to help with emphysema after years of passive smoking? An amputee who lost a limb due to diabetes which was born in obesity?

There are currently 7million people in Australia who are obese, but it is valuable to understand that there are three categories of obesity: moderately obese, seriously obese and morbidly obese. There are conditions of obesity that definitely create impairment and require assistance of varying degrees, but stitched to the notion that obesity is a condition that can be ‘cured’, there is a difficulty for many accepting the notion that an obese person could or should be considered to have a disability and receive any government support. It will be extremely difficult to distinguish any finer definitions of disability than already exist in the DDA and the NDIS Act 2013.

As accessibility consultants, we do not judge how, where or why someone might have a disability – we use Commonwealth, State and Local Government laws, codes and standards to facilitate compliant built environments towards better and inclusive design. Time will tell whether those controls evolve to specifically allow for people who are significantly bigger than average.

John Moulang

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