Obesity, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Reasonable Accommodations

Obesity, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Reasonable Accommodations

Much like cancer and many other chronic health conditions, obesity is usually a lifestyle condition, a genetic condition, or some combination of these two things. Since this disability has so many possible causes, over a third of Americans are obese, meaning their Body Mass Index is above 30. 

Obesity is not automatically a “disability” under the ADA. However, it is not automatically excluded, either. Instead, obesity may be a protected disability, depending on the facts and circumstances. Roughly the same thing applies to cerebral palsy, autism, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and almost any other medical impairment. Sometimes these things are disabilities, and sometimes they are not.

Largely due to the subjective nature of these issues, unless obese workers or potential workers partner with a Chicago employment discrimination lawyer, they might never know what legal protections, if any, they might be entitled to receive.


Obesity often causes a number of other health problems, such as diabetes, sleep apnea, respiratory issues, and arthritis. Generally, the more obesity-related issues a person has, the higher the person’s RFC (Residual Functional Capacity) score will be. The Social Security Administration relies almost exclusively on RFC scores to determine eligibility for benefits. In the ADA/employment discrimination context, RFC scores are highly relevant, but they do not exclusively determine the nature of a disability.

Other issues are relevant as well. For example, some jobs require extended standing. Obese people, especially if they are also arthritic, might have an issue with this requirement. 

Possible Accommodations

Generally, ADA accommodations are available if the employees have the essential skills necessary to perform a job but need some assistance to reach their full potential. The classic example is a legally-blind professional who needs a screen reader or some other such aid. Some possible obesity accommodations include:

  • Oversize chairs, toilets, ladders, and other such items to accommodate a large body size,
  • Schedule adjustments to accommodate fatigue,
  • Scooters, walkers, or other aids to accommodate mobility impairments,
  • Personal assistants to accommodate weakness, and
  • Remote work options.

If a physician recommends a particular accommodation, it is usually “reasonable” under the ADA, unless the employer proves the requested accommodation is completely impractical.

Some Practical Examples

Assume an obese social worker has difficulty climbing steps. Generally, this worker might be entitled to a schedule accommodation which limits him or her to cases that do not require home visits. 

Similarly, an obese attorney might have issues finding a close parking space when she returns from court. For most lawyers, court attendance is an essential job function. So, a schedule change is probably not a reasonable accommodation. However, a designated parking spot close to the office entrance is clearly reasonable.

These accommodations and issues are not limited to professionals. Assume a janitor is afraid that a ladder will not support his weight. The employer cannot simply tell the janitor to “risk it” or that his fear is unfounded. Instead, the employer must generally provide a large-seated ladder.

Partner with a Dedicated Lawyer

The Americans with Disabilities Act usually protects obese employees. For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago employment discrimination attorney, contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline. Home and after-hours visits are available.