BOSTON — At 4 feet 8 inches tall, Marblehead resident Ellen Frankel understands firsthand how society can discriminate against short people. In fact, she's written the book on it.
The author of "Beyond Measure," an account of the social bias faced by short people, Frankel said it is time for state lawmakers to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers based on height and weight.
"We want a law that's going to protect those people, celebrate size diversity and not expect everyone to look like cookie cutters of each other," Frankel said in an interview at the Statehouse yesterday.
Frankel supports a bill by Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, that would add height and weight to the list of traits currently acknowledged in state anti-discrimination laws such as race, religion, age and gender. Lawmakers heard Frankel and other supporters of the bill yesterday at a hearing before the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
A licensed clinical social worker in the field of eating disorders since 1987, Frankel has faced social discrimination in the past and hopes the legislation would help deter employers from acting on bias.
Frankel pointed to growth hormone injections given to healthy children as an extreme example of prejudice against short people. She said there's nothing physically wrong with the children, they're just short.
"As a short person, I want to make sure that people growing up in a culture that is so biased against short people have some recourse if they're not looked at based on their merit and are instead looked at based on their height," Frankel said.
In 2003, a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that an employee could expect to receive $789 more annually for each inch exceeding average height (5 feet 9 inches for a man and 5 feet 4 inches for a woman).
The report by University of Florida psychiatrist Timothy Judge and University of North Carolina researcher Daniel Cable was based on four studies in the United States and Great Britain that followed thousands of people from childhood to adulthood.
Rushing said he has talked with many who share Frankel's concern. Since he first filed height and weight legislation 10 years ago, Rushing has gotten significant feedback from people in Massachusetts and across the country.
But Rep. Bradley Jones Jr., R-North Reading, said height and weight discrimination doesn't merit legislators' attention, especially with the Legislature's session ending July 31.
"(It) really isn't that far away, and the list of things that really need our attention before that date is fairly long," Jones said. "I don't think this is one of the things that should be on that list."
Jones is also concerned that obesity would be out of place alongside unchangeable traits currently considered in state anti-discrimination laws. Though height is predetermined, weight is something that's a matter of choice, Jones said. For that reason, he said, it probably should not be grouped with race, religion, age or gender.
Obesity is not optional, however, a study by Rebecca Puhl, director of research at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Research, indicates. The average obese person cannot lose and keep off more than 10 percent of their weight, Puhl said at yesterday's hearing.
Though Rushing's bill may be controversial, Peter Malaguti, a constitutional law professor at Massachusetts School of Law at North Andover, said it passes constitutional muster.
"States are allowed to go further than the 'classic' types of discrimination, prohibiting other types of discrimination by statute," he said.
Similar legislation has been passed in Michigan, the District of Columbia and some cities in California.