You’re probably aware that the United States created a series of civil rights laws to protect individuals from discrimination based on certain characteristics, such as age, religion or ethnicity. Included on this list of protected traits is disability–and the law describing this protection is laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a federal law that went into effect in 1990 to help ensure that individuals with disabilities receive the same rights and opportunities as other people in the workplace, school and all areas related to their public lives.
But what exactly constitutes a disability? A recent case in California asks the question: can obesity be considered a disability? Does being obese qualify you for protections under the ADA?
Under the most recent amendment to the ADA, “disability” is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This definition leaves the specific types of impairments that fall under this definition somewhat open to interpretation.
The case in question involves Ketryn Cornell, a former employee at the Berkeley Tennis Club. She is five feet, five inches tall and weighs more than 350 pounds. Cornell worked as a pool manager at the tennis club for over 15 years and performed her job well. She received positive performance reviews and other recognition.
When the club hired a new general manager, he allegedly began making derogatory comments about Cornell’s weight. He then reduced her working hours–hiring a thin woman to take on the extra shifts. He fired Cornell shortly thereafter.
Cornell sued the club for wrongful termination and disability discrimination. The court initially dismissed her case. When she appealed, the First District Court of Appeals accepted the case and sided with Cornell–finding that obesity can in fact be considered a disability.
This ruling could have implications on similar disability discrimination claims in the future.