My Big Fat Disability Question: Is Obesity a Disability?

Hello, readers,

In case you didn’t get the message from the title, I’ll warn you: this post may be controversial. Obesity is a touchy subject these days, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the physical and emotional health of obese people. With that in mind, I will try to treat this topic as gently as possible, while still sharing “tough love” when necessary.

I think before we can start to answer this question, we need to reexamine what a disability is. I defined it in another post, so let’s look at it again. According to Heward, a disability is an impairment (remember, the two words are not interchangeable), significant enough to interfere with daily life activities. Other definitions, from my faithful computer dictionary, include “restricted capability to perform daily activities” and “medical condition restricting activities.” Synonyms given include “incapacity,” “infirmity,” “ill health,” or “debility.” Fortunately, most of these synonyms are outdated. Some don’t even make sense. I mean, if “ill health” equals disability, I’m “disabled” every time I get a cold, right? Please.

But let’s return to obesity. It would be easy to say, “Okay, it’s a medical condition, and it prevents people from doing daily activities. Therefore, it is a disability.” However, it is my personal opinion that these definitions are flawed when it comes to “disabilities” like obesity. I think it would be more correct to say obesity is, or at least can be, a disabling condition. Allow me to explain.

I have met a few obese people in my lifetime, one of whom moves in and out of daily life. I have also seen and heard the stories of obese individuals, and some of them are heartbreaking. For example, some people become obese because of pre-existing medical issues that required several surgeries or other procedures, rendered them bedridden, and therefore precluded any significant physical activity. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out, in that situation, you can’t move very much. If you don’t move, calories sit in your body and become extra weight. I don’t care how healthy you are otherwise; I think this can happen. And yes–in that situation, sometimes people eat unhealthy foods because they taste good. Eating things like pizza, burgers, processed food, or sweets activates the brain’s pleasure center. Therefore, the person feels better emotionally. And they will keep returning to those bad foods because they feel good. Unfortunately, as we know, this turns into a devastating, sometimes fatal, tradeoff.

I heard one such story from the television documentary Too Fat for Fifteen: Fighting Back, the story of Taneshia Mitchell. She had a lot to overcome, in part because of pre-existing medical issues. And she did; this young woman has lost over 200 pounds and is doing well. Quick shout-out: WAY TO GO, TANESHIA!

So, for some individuals, obesity is not their “fault”. Their food choices or activity choices may have exacerbated the problem, but the root of the obesity is not necessarily those people saying, “I enjoy being fat.” In cases like that, obesity becomes a disabling condition. When you can barely walk, or when the slightest physical exertion hurts you–literally–then you have been disabled, however temporarily.

But notice, I did not say “you have a disability.” Why is that? For a number of reasons:

  • Obesity can be overcome/changed, on a permanent basis. People who are obese have the option of working to lose their weight, and many take that option. Obesity can be “cured” (I put that word in quotes because I’m not sure it’s truly appropriate) if one eats well and gets active. For those whose obesity is morbid or super-morbid, corrective surgery, followed by a change in lifestyle, is possible and will fix the problem, if that person has a loving support system, physical and emotional help, and yes, a dash of willpower. I don’t care what medical procedures exist or what kind of therapy you do–99.9999% of the time, CP, spina bifida, blindness, deafness, or what have you cannot be cured on a permanent basis. Some disabilities, like speech disorders (i.e., stuttering), can be “grown out of,” but that’s not a guarantee. And even if those disabilities are “grown out of,” the person’s willpower or choices only took him or her so far. Natural, but specialized help was needed, and even then, the stutter or other issue may “come back.”
  • In many cases, obesity is a chosen lifestyle. Now, I hear what you’re saying. “Of course it’s chosen, Chick; some of those people just gave up!” True–but if that’s the case, then they need emotional and perhaps psychological help, not the enabling of the people around them. I’ll give you two examples: Scotty and Billy. These young men are, respectively, from Too Fat for Fifteen and the Discovery Health documentary Half-Ton Teen. In both cases, their families, most notably their mothers, are enablers. Billy’s mother regularly feeds him junk food and junk drinks, with the explanation that she’s showing love to her “baby” (he’s 19). In return, Billy often acts like a child (“You said if I was a good boy at the doctor’s, I could have two games.”) Billy’s mother attempts to help him on his weight loss journey, but vacillates between tough love and enabling. And if Billy cries or acts upset, she’ll often be upset right along with him. Similarly, Scotty, who was about 14 at the time his documentary was filmed, attended the Wellspring weight loss camp and school with several other kids ranging from about 11 to 20. On camera, he can be seen constantly thinking up excuses not to do activities, skipping required fitness activities, or crying profusely when asked or prodded to do something. At home, he often makes unhealthy choices, but justifies them (the most caloric sandwich Subway has is still okay because it was purchased at Subway and is lower in calories than a Big Mac). His mother enables him, lashing out at counselors and camera people, acting as if corrective surgery will solve all her son’s problems, etc. In these two cases–and others like them–these people are proving they would rather stay obese–and therefore contribute to something that could kill them–than improve their lives.

A cautionary note: Certainly, parents or other loved ones can “enable” another disability, either by allowing their loved one to live as a victim or not insisting that loved one make strides they are capable of. (For example, it is NEVER acceptable for a therapist to pull and yank on a child to the point of hurting him or her, and it is NEVER acceptable to let therapy take the place of a natural life, or be used as a threat or incentive for rewards. But if you choose to enroll your child with a disability in therapy, it is perfectly acceptable that they be expected to cooperate and do the best they can. It is perfectly acceptable to encourage a child with an emotional disability like PTSD or OCD to make strides, and to push them gently if you know they are capable of more than they’re doing). The difference here is, again, obesity has the potential to be permanently changed. Therefore, enabling has more of a potential to keep the person with obesity locked in an unhealthy lifestyle, which they may end up choosing, out of rebellion or because they weren’t given legitimate help.

Do I dislike or look down on obese people? No. Remember, I used to be slightly overweight, so I can only imagine the physical and emotional trials these people experience. Do I think obesity is a sin? No, although I do wonder if it’s the best way to take care of one’s temple. But, do I think people with obesity have disabilities? No. They have conditions that may disable them for a time. But in most cases, they have what other people with disabilities will never have: a chance to reverse the condition. That’s why, in closing, I encourage anyone with obesity reading this to know there are people out there cheering for you. For their sake and for yours, take that unique opportunity.

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4 thoughts on “My Big Fat Disability Question: Is Obesity a Disability?

  1. I am a grandmother, I am raising a Prader-Willi child. I love most of your articles that I have read. This one is not one of my favorites. People do have reasons for weight gain that is beyond their control. Disablities in several areas cause weight gain. Morbid Obesity is a horrible word and a death sentence to most. Please consider these people and others who fight to survive. Thank you. Please check on Prader-Willi Syndrome and others that may look at this article the same way you take up for others.

    • Thank you for your insight. I am deeply sorry to have offended you; I honestly did not mean to do so. I tried to explain in the article that there is a major difference between obesity as a result of medical conditions and obesity that is more of a choice, but perhaps I did not do a good job of that. I am heartened by what you are doing for your grandson, and I wish him all the best.

      • ‘Thank you, it is quite common for people to jump to the conclusion that there is a one size fits all statement in the obese and not in other disabilities. My grandaughter is a kind and loving little girl. She has no negitive feelings toward others with a disablity or not. We pray for a cure for all those with disablities and PWS.

  2. Thank you, Sharon. Yes, cures are a wonderful thing, and I encourage you to keep seeking and praying for them. In the meantime, though, may everyone in your family be blessed with the best lives possible, not in spite of PWS, but WITH it.

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