Adding Weight to the ADA: Why Anorexia Should Constitute a Disability and Thus Be Protected Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Volume 81, No. 1, Spring 2008
By Chad E. Kurtz

The critics who dismiss anorexia as a minor, self-induced problem are certainly uninformed that up to fifteen percent of individuals suffering from anorexia die every year. What is so frightening about anorexia is not just its deadliness but also how its strangling grip on society is both expanding and growing tighter. As many as ten million women and one million men “are fighting a life-and-death battle” with eating disorders such as anorexia, a statistic that excludes the countless individuals in a less critical stage of an eating disorder. The rise in anorexia cases is evidenced by the fact that eating disorder treatment centers are a growing business and talk shows often exploit the ordeals of individuals with eating disorders to bolster ratings.

The magnitude of this anorexia epidemic is revealed by society’s growing mission to fight the disease. Because the media realizes that the anorexia of everyday people is less newsworthy, the most sensationalized reports of anorectics are those of actresses, models, and other famous individuals. Society has responded with an enhanced desire to combat eating disorders by criticizing anorexic or even seemingly anorexic famous individuals who serve as role models for many young females. Various countries and organizations have even taken part in the societal battle against anorexia by taking steps to eliminate eating disorders among these role models who are most exposed to the world. Notably, in order to repel the wave of eating disorders that has stricken models, countries have banned or considered banning ultrathin women from fashion shows.

Although it is impossible to calculate the exact number of anorexic employees currently in the workforce, it is suspected that the number is extremely high. Certain professions seem to attract individuals suffering from eating disorders, such as jobs in fitness, dance, theater, and modeling. On the other hand, sometimes it is the job environment itself that creates the body-weight issues that lead to eating disorders, such as exposure to constant pressure to be the “ideal professional.” Recognizing the threat from employers, one registered dietician stated that an employer should not fire an individual because of her psychological problems, such as anorexia, “‘as that would be discriminatory.”’ Under the current law, however, she would be wrong.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA” or the “Act”) is federal legislation designed to protect disabled individuals from employment discrimination, among other types of discrimination, on the basis of their disabilities. Although the statute does not explicitly exclude eating disorders from being a disability, not one court in the United States has found anorexia or any other eating disorder to be protected under the Act. Since the ADA’s enactment in 1990, courts have frequently expanded the statute’s coverage by recognizing and protecting new disabilities. Anorexia is a growing problem that is only going to get worse. The time is long overdue for anorexic employees to be legally protected from employment discrimination on the basis of their anorexia.

This Comment concludes that anorexia should constitute a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA and therefore should be entitled to appropriate legal protection. Part II presents an overview of the ADA and the prima facie elements of an ADA claim, primarily in the context of eating disorders and the “major life activity” of eating. Part II also discusses the psychological and physical characteristics of, and treatment for, anorexia. Part III.A argues that anorexia can satisfy all of the elements of an ADA claim and suggests various reasonable accommodations that employers could implement for when the anorexic employee is not otherwise qualified. Part III.B provides several reasons why offering ADA protection to employees with anorexia is both necessary and beneficial. Part III.C explains why recognizing ADA claims based on anorexia will neither lead to excess litigation nor create an undue burden for employers.

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