Helen Leahey is a Welsh journalist and documentary filmmaker who works in education management.

Society gives benefits to other people with physical disabilities. Why not those with morbid obesity? (Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Job interviews are an uncomfortable experience for most people. But for people like me who suffer from morbid obesity, they are especially grueling. It’s hard to impress someone when you’re the fat applicant. There’s the added challenge of sustaining an engaging conversation as a potential future employer walks you around the premises, a hike that leaves you winded. After that, you have to squeeze into a tiny chair and present your credentials, maintaining a charming demeanor as the blood circulation to the lower half of your body is cut off. I went through this process over and over again while I was searching for a job. I did land one eventually, as a manager in one of the world’s leading business schools. But my problems didn’t end there. Because of my handicap, co-workers had to take over tasks that I couldn’t manage – mainly those that involved climbing any number of stairs or walking more than 20 feet.

It is clear to me that morbid obesity — defined as having a body mass index above 40 — is often a disability, irrelevant of the cause. But in many legal systems, that’s still an unanswered question. Even as obesity rates have soared, U.S. and European courts have grappled with whether to classify the most severe cases as a disability, which would obligate employers to provide necessary accommodations so obese employees can overcome their handicap at work, such as larger chairs and uniforms. In recent years, the U.S. legal system has started leaning in favor of obese workers. For instance, in Texas, a 600-pound forklift operator filed a lawsuit against his former employer when the company refused to give him a seat belt extender to do his job safely, and then fired him two weeks later. The company ultimately settled for $55,000.

Today, the European Court of Justice is scheduled to settle this matter for its member countries. The court’s ruling, which would affect all nations in the European Union, will determine whether morbidly obese employees are protected from workplace discrimination related to their weight. The question was raised by a case in Denmark, where a child-care worker with a BMI of 54 was fired in 2010. Carrying 352 pounds on a 5-foot-7-inch frame, Karsten Kaltoft reportedly had difficulty performing certain tasks, such as tying children’s shoes. Believing that’s why he lost his job, Kaltoft filed a disability discrimination suit against his employer. The court’s advocate general issued a preliminary ruling in July, determining that severe obesity could qualify as a disability, regardless of whether it was “self-inflicted” or related to another medical issue. If the court follows the advocate general’s lead and grants morbidly obese Europeans disability status, it would help improve working conditions for a growing portion of Europe’s workforce, and serve as a model for addressing the obesity problem worldwide.

(Update: The European Court of Justice has ruled that obesity can be considered a disability, according to news reports.)

Nearly 30 percent of the global population is either overweight or obese, according to a survey by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics. No country in the world has lowered its obesity rate since 1980. The prevalence of morbid obesity appears to be growing particularly fast, especially in the United States, where an estimated 6.6 percent of the population falls into that category. In Britain, the percentage of morbidly obese people jumped threefold between 1995 and 2010, to about 2.7 percent of the population. The trend of piling on the pounds is prevalent across all sections of society, making it an unavoidable issue for employers. It’s critical that we address the ever-expanding waistlines of our workforce.

The number of U.S. adults experiencing weight discrimination increased 66 percent between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, according to Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The center found that people who are overweight or obese regularly earn less and get fewer promotions than those who aren’t, based on various studies. One study concluded that discrimination due to weight is now more prevalent than discrimination due to ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other physical disabilities. Research confirms that overweight people have a harder time finding work, too. The University of Tübingen in Germany studied the reactions of human resource professionals to photos of job candidates, including ones described as overweight. The recruiters were far less likely to select the overweight candidates for prestigious jobs, particularly female candidates. This kind of discrimination will inevitably worsen the inequality women experience in the workplace, especially for those seeking positions of authority.

By failing to recognize morbid obesity as a disability, society is alienating a growing number of people from working life. We don’t debate whether a person who breaks his back due to reckless behavior should be granted disabled status. Morbidly obese people should be afforded the same benefits as other workers suffering with debilitating conditions. My own struggles in the workplace may have been greatly reduced with more official assistance.​ Because some companies commit to filling a percentage of their positions with disabled workers (certain countries even mandate disability quotas), classifying morbidly obese people as disabled could make more jobs available to us and ease that grueling job search process. And with the backing of disability laws, obese employees would feel more comfortable speaking up about their limitations, requiring employers to provide accommodations like parking spaces closer to office entrances.

To improve my situation, I recently underwent gastric-sleeve bariatric surgery and have lost 70 pounds in two-and-a-half months. But a long-term solution is critical to end the obesity epidemic, and surgery and workplace protections aren’t it. If obesity continues to grow at the current rate, at some point, most of the population could be classified as disabled, threatening the ability of our health-care system and economy to function. To fix the obesity problem, regulators should target the food industry and its excessive use of sugar and other fattening products, which an increasing number of researchers believe are addictive. Schools also should teach our children the value of a healthy lifestyle and debunk food companies’ myths about what constitutes a healthy snack (‘low fat’ yogurts, for instance, are pumped with sugar). Legal recognition of morbid obesity as a disability is necessary to bring some justice to a highly discriminated-against group. But it should not fuel complacency in addressing the deadly rise of obesity.​

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