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Woman Accuses Theater of Obesity Discrimination

February 24, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Deborah Birdwell just wanted to see the movie ″Jurassic Park,″ but she was too large to fit into the seats and the theater wouldn’t let her bring her own chair.

So, in a test of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Tennessee woman has gone to court to try to force theaters to accommodate obesity.

″We’re sort of the last group of people that society has said, ’Well, it’s OK to hurt these people,‴ said Ms. Birdwell, who at 5-feet-4 weighs 360 pounds. ″That has to stop.″

In November, the government declared that people who are morbidly obese are protected from discrimination under the disabilities act regardless of whether the weight was caused by disease or poor diet.

Morbid obesity is a medical term that means 100 percent over normal weight.

Previously, only people whose weight stemmed from disease were protected. But in a brief filed in an employment lawsuit in Rhode Island, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said morbid obesity from any cause qualified.

Now, Ms. Birdwell will become the first person to test that ruling under another provision of the disabilities act - that public places must accommodate the disabled. For her, that means a big enough theater seat.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Cookeville, Tenn., Ms. Birdwell is asking that Carmike Cinemas immediately be forced to accommodate obese patrons. She also seeks unspecified damages, which her lawyer hopes will total $1.5 million.

Ms. Birdwell, 38, of Cookeville, has been overweight since childhood and obesity runs in her family. She sought escape in the movies but in 1991 became too large for the seats. She said she was so ashamed, she became a recluse.

″I had just hibernated,″ she said in a telephone interview.

Then last summer, she took her niece to see ″Jurassic Park.″ She called Highland 4 Theater in Cookeville, a Carmike Cinemas theater, explained her weight problem and asked if she could sit in her own chair in the wheelchair section, out of the way. A woman on the phone said yes.

But the suit alleges that theater manager Dewey Dodson spotted Ms. Birdwell in line and yelled that she couldn’t bring in the chair, calling it a fire hazard that violated theater policy. After several minutes of public haranguing, an embarrassed Ms. Birdwell collapsed in tears, the suit says.

Michael Patrick, president of Columbus, Ga.-based Carmike, did not return phone calls. Calls to the theater were unanswered.

The disabilities act requires that public places accommodate anyone with a physical condition that ″substantially limits a major life activity.″

And obese people are now demanding that accommodation, said Ms. Birdwell’s attorney, Jim Goodman of the Persons with Disabilities Law Center in Atlanta. He also is preparing a lawsuit against an airline that charged an obese customer for two seats because she couldn’t fit in one.

″People that are obese don’t like to be included in something that says they have a disability,″ he said. ″But once they get over the terminology they realize they actually have rights.″

Ms. Birdwell says telling her story is further humiliation but it’s necessary.

″My hope is to let other people know you don’t have to take this,″ she said. ″There’s a huge class of people who don’t come out ... because they’re fat. It would make a better world for everybody ... to take down those barriers.″

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