Why You Should Know about the ADA
When I woke up yesterday, I went on instagram and scrolled through my feed as I normally would do. I noticed I had a message from a mom that I had talked to before. She reached out telling me about a food establishment in Indiana that had released a statement on facebook focused on their new peanut allergy policy (I will not specifically give the names of anyone or any establishment as I don’t want to inspire an attack, I just want to inform on this situation). They decided that they would refuse service to anyone with a peanut allergy, but it appeared they were also talking about tree nut allergies as well. The woman who told me about this situation told me that she felt like this was wrong and it frustrated her, though she wasn’t sure if she should feel that way or not. So I checked the situation out. The Indiana food establishment’s actual statement on facebook read “Due to the increasing number of peanut allergy population and the risks that are involved we have implemented a no serve policy to those with a peanut allergy. We are sorry for your disappointment and inconvenience. According to the health departments any trace of allergens can trigger an allergic reaction. We are trying to keep anyone at risk safe.” The statement was clear and could have been coming from the right place, but I noticed that I too felt like something about it felt wrong.
I decided to check out the comments, which I found to be pretty divided on the topic. There were several people who said they had food allergies and they expressed unhappiness with this new policy. There were also several who seemed to like the policy. Some simply because they thought it would keep more people safe, and some because they seemed to think food allergies were too much of an inconvenience in general. There are always so many opinions when it comes to food allergies, and this situation was no different. But here’s the thing: while this food establishment might have had the very best intentions when it came to food allergies, I discovered with some extra research that this policy could potentially clash with the standards set under the ADA.
If you thought that the policy they posted was a bit discriminatory towards those with food allergies, you might not be wrong, according to the ADA. The ADA stands for the American Disability Act, which is a civil rights law in America. This act allows for people to speak up or request change when they feel like are being discriminated against because of a disability. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), food allergies and asthma are both considered to be disabilities under the ADA. The AAFA states, “ In both the ADA and Section 504, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that seriously limits one or more major life activities, or who is regarded as having such impairments. Asthma and allergies are usually considered disabilities under the ADA.” Under the ADA, public places like restaurants, hotels, theatres, stores, doctor’s offices, museums, non-religious private schools, and child care programs need to make accommodations for people with disabilities. Food allergies fit into the category of disabilities under this law because they can impact major life activities like breathing, eating, going to work and going to school.
The AAFA also says that in 2008 there were changes made that also specifically included those with food allergies and asthma. They state, “Conditions that only show symptoms at certain times are now included. Asthma and allergies fit this definition. The ADA protects people with asthma and allergies even if reactions or attacks happen only when triggered. The ADA can help to create an environment where patients can avoid their triggers.” So under American law, those of us with food allergies are supposed to be protected from discrimination. While this particular quote might not specifically say a restaurant shouldn’t refuse service, it does prove that food allergies and asthma are considered disabilities and accommodations should be made for that. This does not mean that every restaurant in the country has to keep those of us with food allergies safe from our allergens. However, it does mean we can complain under the ADA for discrimination and we may have a case.
ADA Title III, which deals with private entities, says that “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182. This does seem to be in the food allergy community’s favor. In the case of the restaurant in Indiana, they straight up refused to serve anybody who had peanut allergies. Depending how you take it, this could be considered discriminating, because they were specifically calling out a group of people with a specific disability. The lines still seem fuzzy to me after reading through several documents. It think it all depends on how the discrimination is being made.
I can imagine for restaurant owners this can be a tricky thing to deal with. But I do not personally believe that straight up refusing service to customers is a good idea. In cases like this, I believe that restaurant owners should have signs or statements up around the establishment warning customers of certain allergens are hard for the staff to avoid. I do believe that restaurants should be open about when they don’t believe that they can totally keep someone safe from their allergens. But I also believe that those of us with food allergies have the responsibility to understand our bodies and our own allergies. The food establishments should work to be honest with customers when there is high risk involved, and it is up to the person with food allergies to make the decision as to whether or not they decide to eat somewhere.
LegalMatch, which is a website dedicated to helping people find the right lawyer for their specific case, had some information on food allergy related lawsuits. According to LegalMatch, “...any business, company, or institution has a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that persons with food allergies are not aggravated by the food...persons who do have a food allergy must also inform such places of any food allergy...If they contributed to their own allergic reaction, they may be prevented from receiving a damages award in a lawsuit.” So basically this goes along with the idea that those of us with food allergies are responsible for our health as long as we are fully informed about the food we are consuming or are around. This seems fair to me.
Certainly, having food allergies is not fun, but it’s not anybody’s fault that we may have them. It’s good to remember that those who regularly consume or work with our allergens are not bad people, just because we might associate the allergens they are around as being dangerous or bad (because the allergens are bad for those of us who are allergic). So after reading all this, I have determined that I still believe that the Indiana food establishment was wrong to create a policy like that. Yes, I don’t think people with nut allergies should eat there based on the statements they made and the attitudes towards food allergies that they seem to have. The woman who brought this case up to me informed me that their statement about nut allergies was posted “after a family who had dined at the shop for years made the same request they always do, for the server to change gloves when handling their daughter’s soft serve ice cream. The manager told them if they asked that again they would be refused service.” Based on that, and the language I saw the Indiana establishment use in this case, it feels as if this was created for more of a dislike for food allergies rather than out of concern.
I kept tabs on the establishment’s facebook page, and around midday I noticed that they had deleted their first post about refusing service to those with nut allergies and instead posted a picture of a handmade sign warning about allergies. That post has since also been deleted, but it said something around the lines of the establishment having nuts everywhere (written in all caps in the handmade sign) and that those with allergies should eat at their own risk. It also mentioned that those who had food allergies should be ready to sign a release form. Captioned with this picture of the handmaid note was something along the line “here’s your sign for those of you who want to deal with this yourself,” which appeared somewhat condescending in my opinion. On the original post, I mentioned kindly in the comments that maybe they could just create a sign warning those with allergies, and I also know that the woman who contacted me also commented that there might be a better way to deal with this issue. We were not alone. Several others who said they had food allergies also commented on the post. And none of our comments were safe from trolling either. One man in particular responded to me and several others saying that the idea that food allergies are considered a disability was ridiculous. He mentioned if that were the case that people with food allergies would be getting checks from the government every month. Obviously he was wrong...LOL.
However, this whole event taught me so much. Firstly, it showed that there is still a lot of ignorance about food allergies across the country. The things I read and the negative attitudes that I saw expressed reminded me why it was so important to educate others about food allergies. I don’t believe responding with anger is the best way to handle situations like this. In fact, I think it’s better to respond with kindness. People who respond ignorantly aren’t just straight up our enemies. I will admit that there are some people capable of doing and saying awful things because of their beliefs about food allergies, but responding in an awful way makes us no better than the ones attacking us. Educating is the way to empathy, in my opinion. The best way to educate is sharing our stories and our experiences with the world, knowing that speaking out will likely cause some people to respond in really mean ways. That’s why it’s so important to validate yourself and know this is a true condition that is worth spreading understanding about.
Secondly, I feel like yesterday I took part in actually making a change, if only a little. I, a girl from California, took part with several others, kindly expressing other solutions to this issue. You may argue I had no right to be meddling with something like this, so far away. True, I have never even been to Indiana. But food allergy awareness and understanding is my mission, and social media is my tool. While the Indiana establishment didn’t seem to take to the suggestions too kindly, they did delete their original statement on refusing service to those with allergies. They made a sign instead. Who knows if they will actually still serve to those with allergies, but at least we all inspired a small change. For the food allergy community, every small change like this can be so very powerful and vital in our overall search for acceptance and understanding. Over anything, spread kindness, speak confidently, and speak up for your rights! The path of food allergy advocacy is not easy or always kind, but in order for change to happen someone must stand up.
“ADA Links and Resources.” ADA Information Line Links, www.ada.gov/ada_info.htm.
“Are Asthma and Allergies Disabilities?” Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America,
Rivera, Jose. “Food Allergy Lawsuits.” LegalMatch Law Library, 3 Sept. 2018,
Additional Sources: https://www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/ada-webinar-slides.pdf