If you have a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher, you can get a great deal at the World Cup: an extra-wide seat, sold at a 50% discount.

It is one thing to allow for different body sizes. It is another thing entirely for the government to essentially reward people with a certain body type by discounting their tickets to the World Cup.

FIFA, as a rule, tries to follow the laws of individual host countries. (This is okay.)

The 2014 World Cup will be held in Brazil. (This is okay.)

Brazilian law states that no less than 1% of all public stadium seats should be accessible to visitors with disabilities. (This is great! The World Cup, of all things, should be able to welcome all of the world’s diverse people.)

In Brazil, obesity is categorized as a disability. (This is crazy.)

There are many reasons that someone might be obese. Lifestyle choices, genetics, and other medical conditions all influence a person’s weight. But obesity is not, in and of itself, a disability. (And the way that Brazil is measuring obesity – by Body Mass Index – is a fraud. The chart is 200 years old, and makes no differentiation between bone, fat, and muscle – that’s why it categorizes athletes, with lots of muscle mass and very little fat, as overweight or even obese. If Brazil wants to accommodate people who have a very high proportion of body fat, using the BMI chart is the wrong way to do it.)

I don’t doubt that obesity can make a person’s life more difficult. But not everything that makes a person’s life difficult, it something that qualifies as a disability. There are plenty of things that make it harder for people to move around in public spaces (being very short or very tall, for example) – but we don’t call those things disabilites.  And unlike obesity, there is nothing about a person’s behavior that can change their height.*

Whoever makes the laws in Brazil apparently hasn’t figured this out. They categorize obesity as a mobility issue. FIFA’s website states that disabled access tickets are for “wheelchair users, obese people, and people with limited mobility.”

One of these things is not like the other. A person who is lacks the use of one or more limbs, is not the same as a person who has a fully functioning body that is burdened by extra weight. There may be instances when a disability makes a person more prone to obesity, or maybe obesity could cause health problems that we would consider disabilities. But in both of those cases, the disability and the person’s weight are two separate medical issues. It does a disservice to people with disabilities to categorize their medical issues along with obesity.** It’s like comparing apples to oranges.***

The 50% discount is a significant amount of money, especially for something like World Cup tickets, for which demand exceeds supply. Let’s say that two friends, who happen to be about the same height, want to go to the World Cup. These two friends are of average body size, or even overweight, but they are not obese. Could their weights be added together to count as one obese person?  They would share the wider seat at the soccer match. They would be sitting right next to each other, so their height is the same, but their weight is much higher together than it would be apart.

The problem presented here is not with obesity, and certainly not with obese people. The problem is that the government is mandating special treatment based on something so arbitrary, and so prone to fluctuations, as a person’s body mass. FIFA and the Brazilian government are trying to do something smart and something kind by setting aside seats for persons with disabilities. But by counting obesity as a disability, they are sending the wrong message on the world stage.

*Jimmy Choo notwithstanding.

**For instance, a car crash victim may be injured or disabled as a result of the crash. But car accidents do not cause people to immediately gain weight.

***Speaking of apples and oranges, those are two things that might help alleviate the obesity issue. They will not, however, help someone with a disability that affects their ability to move.


Angela Morabito | Georgetown University | @_AngelaMorabito