This past week, the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) published a press release stating that the Commission has brought suit against a Texas-based company for the firing of a morbidly obese employee. Ronald Kratz II worked for BAE Systems, a military manufacturing company, for 16 years. He was fired in 2009, according to EEOC, for his weight. In the present suit, EEOC seeks compensatory damages for Mr. Kratz, along with an injunction prevent such further terminations by BAE Systems.
Even at a weight of 680 pounds, Kratz said the weight never prevented him from performing his job; He always received positive job reviews.1
Kratz was reportedly shocked when an HR representative told him “We are firing you due to your weight.” The EEOC states that BAE Systems has since replaced Kratz with someone who is not morbidly obese. EEOC attorney Kathy Bouche said, “”The law wants people to be judged on their abilities to do their jobs. Mr. Kratz could do his job,” The EEOC press release also notes that BAE Systems made no attempt to discuss accommodations with Mr. Kratz before firing him.
While the EEOC frequently brings suit against companies which violate protection granted to disabled individuals by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kratz’s suit is a unique for the simple fact that his disability is his morbid obesity. The suit of BAE represents the first time the EEOC has taken a firm stance to affirm morbid obesity as a classified disability. Thus, this situation allows for retrospection on what the term “disability” and its protected status means for employers and disabled individuals.
Under the ADA, a disability is defines as:2
- a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or
- a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity; or
- when an entity (e.g., an employer) takes an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived impairment.
With 1 in 5 Americans presently considered as having a disability3, expanding the protected status to include obesity could greatly inflate that statistic—especially considering the present rise of obesity in the U.S. If employers, the EEOC, and Americans in general have been slow to recognize obesity as a classified disability it is likely in part due to the perception that obese individuals often have much or some “control” over the factors which lead to their condition. While any reasonably-minded person would agree that actual control over obesity must be evaluated on an individual basis, the definite prevalence of high-fat diets and lack of physical activity common to Americans will only add to the growing concerns of protected disabilities.
As someone who is legally blind, I am uncertain of how I would classify issues of obesity. As much as disabled people have in common, there is often as much we do not share. I think disabled people who perceive that little short of divine intervention or medical miracles could cure their condition (e.g. the blind, deaf, paralyzed, etc.) may perceive obesity as a disability which is not as easy to relate. For now at least, there exists a perception that the morbidly obese may have a greater degree of control over their condition when compared to traditional disabled groups. Disabled groups who perceive little control in minimizing the extent of their condition may be even slower to accept the disability classification of the morbidily obese.
However, traditional disabled and on-disabled individuals alike must r reflect upon the days before ADA and terms like “reasonable accommodations” were not a part of mainstream lingo. The U.S., along with countries around the world, has come a great distance in protecting the rights of the disabled. Therefore, considering how far to extend this right is undoubtedly a rather serious dilemma.
This article does not attempt to speculate on which medical diagnoses should be considered disabilities, and therefore protected as such. I am merely using the case of Mr. Kratz to bring to light an often unspoken question of when it comes to disability rights: To what extent and to whom should disability rights be granted? The topic of how severe a condition must be to be granted disability rights has coined terms like “legally blind” and an entire profession for Social Security Disability lawyers.
While BAE Systems awaits its day in court, employers disability groups, and the public in general are left to evaluate what it means to be “disabled” in America.
The 1 in every 5
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