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Severe Obesity is Not a Choice!

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada passed a ruling that would entitle severely handicapped individuals to be accommodated on airlines and specifically extended this ruling to include individuals, who were severely handicapped because of excess weight. This ruling resulted in a flood of raves and rants on why the Supreme Court would promote obesity by accommodating rather than punishing obese people for their laziness and indulgence. The Globe & Mail commentator went as far as to imply that by extending the ruling to obese individuals, the Supreme Court was in fact undermining the case for people with “real disabilities”.

In light of this ridiculous and discriminating accusation, I could not help but write the following letter to the Globe & Mail:

As Medical Director of one of the largest medical obesity programs in the country, I am appalled at the notion that including obesity in the recent Supreme Court judgement on accommodation of disabled people on airline flights, should be considered by the Globe & Mail commentator as anything but fair. To be clear, this ruling does not provide free rides for anyone with a few pounds excess weight – this ruling is specific in that it addresses the issues of individuals, who suffer from a condition so disabling that they require help with even the most basic functions. The idea that someone with such severe disabling obesity, has gained that amount of weight (often several hundred excess pounds) simply by lack of willpower or sheer laziness rather than some underlying genetic, mental heath or medical issue is not only naïve but also reflects the prevailing negative stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination toward obese individuals, that appears to be perfectly acceptable even to otherwise compassionate and reflective individuals. But that is not even the point.

The point is that the Globe & Mail commentator, unlike the Supreme Court, uses causality as a criterium for judging which disability is deserving of special accommodation and which is not. By those standards, it would be fair to ask if the person claiming disability due to a spinal cord or brain injury from a motor vehicle accident was in fact observing the speed limit at the time of the accident or if the person who suffered a disabling stroke always religiously took her blood pressure medications and passed on the salt. Singling out individuals disabled by severe obesity as the only group undeserving of special accommodation is blatant discrimination and belies even a remote understanding of the complex and heterogeneous nature of this unfortunate condition that today befalls so many in our society. Individuals disabled by severe obesity are neither more nor less deserving of accommodation than are folks who loose their eyesight to diabetes, their limbs to smoking, their kidneys to analgesic abuse or their mobility to a reckless sporting injury.

Arya M. Sharma, MD
Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of the Alberta Health Services (Edmonton Area) Weight Wise Program, Edmonton Alberta.

Obviously, I have no idea whether or not the G&M will chose to print or respond to this letter.

For anyone interested in the issue of Weight Bias, this is the topic of a whole supplement to this month’s issue of OBESITY, which includes 14 research articles on the “New Science of Weight Bias: a Significant Social Problem“.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Dear Dr. Sharma,
    I thought your letter was very insightful and extremely well written; I certainly hope the Globe and Mail prints it. Your comments made me realize that I am quick to judge others sometimes and need to be more empathetic.

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  2. Ditto, great response to G&M. Do hope they publish it as their readership is greater than the Obesity Journal.
    Your message should help in getting the message out there to the public concerning weight bias. It all helps to change people’s attitudes which then promotes more public funding for more research and health care to help those suffering from disabling obesity.

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  3. Well written. It helps to see the reasons clearly enunciated.

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  4. This type of response is just what is needed for the public to read. The stigma and discrimination about obesity has done a great deal of harm in our society.

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  5. This is a wonderful critique to an extremely offensive public response. I hope they do publish the letter because its very important to hear respected voices speak out against this sort of discrimination.


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  6. On another topic:
    from MediResource, C.Health provided by Sun Media
    Article written by Brookes Merrit, Jan 16 2008: Interview with Dr. Sharma

    “The most successful weight losers maintain their loss by consuming less than 50% of recommended caloric intake, forever.”

    Is this a quote from Dr. Sharma? Is this true? If so. it seems that the “recommended daily caloric intake” is way too high for many people.

    If true, this would explain why I couldn’t loose weight following a hospital dietitian’s food plan, but I lost 63 lbs (67 to go) on my own stricter plan.

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  7. Barbara. you mentioned the Obesity Journal. what is this and where can I get it? I\ve been in Dr Sharma’s Weight Wise program for a year now.

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  8. I agree with your report about obese people having rights, especially in the workplace.. Although, I disagree with the laws regarding airlines.. eg. last year my wife and I were on a flight from Detroit to Houston.. We like to set in the aisle seats across from each other.. On this flight there was my wife in the aisle seat, another normal size lady in the window seat, and an obese lady in the middle of the two of them.. My wife had to set with just one cheek on the seat for the whole trip. Let’s say, this was not a very comfortable trip.. The lady in the window seat had to get up and stand at the rear of the plane for most of the trip because she couldn’t move or breath. The obese lady couldn’t set in her seat with the arm rests down so she had both rests up.. Are you telling me that this was fair for my wife and the other lady? They cannot build aircraft around obese peole but obese folks do not have to pay for two seats..Why should the airlines loose revenue because of obesity? The other travellers have to put up with the discomfort of setting beside obese people. I can see why people discriminate against obese people in those conditions..I know we did that day and complained to the airlines but as they said “their hands are tied”..thanks to the law.

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  9. Cal,

    The airlines decision not only helps the woman your wife sat next to, but your wife and the woman in the window seat as well. It would allow each of them to fly comfortably and safely.

    What if the airlines loses revenue? So what? The airlines has to make expensive capital expenditures to equip their sales, service and airport options with accessibility ramps and elevators. They offer free accompanying seats for passengers with severe cognitive or physical disabilities who need assistance to make the flights. They offer bereavement plane fares for people flying to funerals or to the bedside of someone terminally ill. These losses are no greater, nor less reasonable than the ones being asked under the obesity ruling… unless of course, you subscribe to the idea that people obese enough to be classed with a disability are less worthy of dignity, or somehow deserve what they get because of their weight.

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  2. Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes » Blog Archive » Airline Seat Saga Continues - [...] on the accommodation of severely obese passengers on Canadian airlines (for previous comments click here and [...]
  3. Will the Public Accept Laws that Prohibit Weight Discrimination? | Dr. Sharma's Obesity Notes - [...] there have been legal precedents in Canada for rulings in favor of obese individuals (e.g. the airline seat ruling),…

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