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Medical-equipment manufacturers such as Hill-Rom of Batesville, Ind., and Kinetic Concepts of San Antonio, Texas, rent and sell everything from heavy-duty commodes and wheelchairs to mechanized beds that can hold 500 lbs. to 1,000 lbs., help turn patients and feature air-circulation mattress systems to help prevent bedsores. The market for bed surfaces and accessories alone is estimated to be $150 million a year and is growing 15% annually. "As the obesity epidemic grows, so does our revenue," says Lynne Sly, vice president of marketing at Kinetic Concepts. Rental rates are steep--up to $200 a day for a bed--but worth it. Before such products were available and widely covered by Medicare and private insurance, recalls Joe Sacco of Central Medical Supplies in Long Valley, N.J., "we'd see patients sleeping on top of plywood propped up on cinder blocks." CMS's sales of heavy-duty beds have doubled in the past year.
TRAVEL AND ENTERTAINMENT Walt Disney theme-park managers say they haven't made specific changes to accommodate fat customers, but company staff members say they are now trained to deal sensitively with the obese. As a result, the company has won kudos at the many websites where overweight activists share their experiences and advice. When a customer approaches a turnstile that is obviously too small, Disney employees move quietly to open wheelchair gates. They discreetly pass out seat-belt extenders on some rides and steer large folk away from others, like Indiana Jones, that might prove dangerous to them. The company also stocks scooters and wide electric wheelchairs. "Disney World may not be perfect, but it's as close to heaven as a fat person can get," says Wanda Sykes, 33, a health-care administrator from Atlanta who weighs 285 lbs. "I visited the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine and got stuck in this dungeon room. It was horrible!"
Southwest Airlines announced last June that it would enforce a long-standing policy of requiring the obese to buy an extra seat based solely on the judgment of staff at the check-in counter that a particular passenger wouldn't fit in a single seat. Southwest says most people who have contacted the airline have supported the policy. And it doesn't seem to have hurt business. Southwest is the only one of the top five airlines that is in the black. But advocates for the obese are livid over the policy. "It infuriates both men and women," says Allen Steadham, 33, director of the International Size Acceptance Association, based in Austin, Texas, "but it seems like it's particularly devastating for some women." In fact, the airline industry has pretty much ignored the needs of the fat. Aside from catering to the widespread preference for king-size beds, hotels have also made minimal adaptations. Aware of this, entrepreneur Sabourin--who used to travel with 4-x-4 wooden blocks to prop up rickety hotel beds--sells vacation packages to resorts that qualify as fat friendly.