What is a disability?

An eating disorder affects our entire being, mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is fair to ask: Is an Eating Disorder a disability? According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar legislation, define a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity (i.e., eating, sleeping, walking, and working). Eating disorders have been primarily classified as mental health conditions. However, their physical and psychological symptoms can profoundly impact an individual’s ability to function.

The debate about whether or not an eating disorder constitutes as a disability often revolves around differing conceptualizations of the word disability. The medical model of disability focuses on the disability as an individual impairment or medical condition. Where the social model emphasizes the role of societal barriers in further disabling individuals. Proponents of recognizing eating disorders as disabilities often argue from the social model perspective. This highlights how societal attitudes, lack of understanding, and limited access to accommodations can exacerbate the impact of eating disorders. 

Eating Disorders on a spectrum

Some individuals may experience milder symptoms or functional impairments that do not substantially limit their ability to engage in major life activities. In such cases, individuals may not qualify for disability accommodations under the law. While the ADA does not explicitly list eating disorders as a qualifying disability, the impairments caused by eating disorders can be severe and pervasive enough for qualification. Individuals with eating disorders may be protected under the law. However, this determination depends on the severity and impact of the eating disorder on the individual’s level of functioning. That determination is ultimately based on an extensive number of acquired medical records, applications, and interviews.

In such cases where an application is accepted, individuals with eating disorders may be entitled to accommodations and support services to help them manage their condition. This would allow them to participate fully in educational, workplace, and social environments. These accommodations could include flexible work or school schedules, access to therapy or medical treatment, and adjustments to mealtime environments. 

So are eating disorders disabilities?

The question of whether eating disorders should be considered disabilities is complex. A range of medical, social, ethical, and legal considerations are still being explored. Recognizing an eating disorder as a disability can provide important protections and support for affected individuals. It also raises questions about stigma, self-identity, and the role of societal attitudes in shaping disability experiences. This debate requires ongoing dialogue and advocacy to effectively address these questions. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder: Seek out support from a highly trained eating disorder therapist who can assist with diagnosis, treatment planning, and seeking disability status, if applicable. 

Article written by Bari Rothfeld, LCSW

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