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Court cases define Food Allergy as a Disability

Recent court settlements have determined that a child or student’s food allergy is a disability. While I would have cringed several years ago to think that my son has a disability, I now see this as welcome news!

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Here are the details of the first lawsuit: A lawsuit was filed by Shannon Knudson against Tiger Tots Community Care Center after they refused to accept her daughter with tree nut allergies in to their care because they feared liability. Ms. Knudson claimed that the daycare was discriminating against her daughter and should be forced to accommodate her. The ruling won on appeal, overturning a lower court’s opinion which said that the daycare had the right to refuse a child whose care would be extraordinarily burdensome. The Iowa appeals court disagreed. They said the child’s allergy is a disability and must be accommodated under the American Disabilities Act. More information about this ruling can be found here.

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The other settlement was between the Department of Justice and Lesley University, a private non-profit institution of approximately 8,000 students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Lesley settlement stemmed from a student complaint in October 2009, which alleged that the university violated ADA (American with Disabilities Act) by neither addressing the needs of students with food allergies nor ensuring them an equivalent dining experience. Under the settlement terms, Lesley – and presumably, other institutions that want to stay in line with ADA – must do more than simply provide gluten- and allergen-free options in its cafeterias. It must also develop individualized meal plans for students with food allergies and allow them to preorder meals; provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare foods to avoid cross-contamination; display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods that contain specific allergens; train food service and staff about food allergies; and try to retain vendors that offer food without allergens. More information about this settlement can be found here.

Both of these institutions – Tiger Tots Community Care Center and  Lesley University – are NOT K-12 schools required to provide FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education. Therefore, these rulings have really changed the landscape for day care centers and colleges. The fact that Lesley University is a private institution means that the Department of Justice oversees them, rather than the Office of Civil Rights. However, the ADA rules still apply. The rulings have determined that in these cases, food allergies are a disability. Why is that a good thing for your child?

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First let me say that when I look at my son, Morgan, I don’t see a disabled child. I see my wonderful son, who has a hidden disability. The question that has to be answered in regard to a disability is: Does a child’s impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities defined by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 ? An episodic impairment like diabetes or food allergies is  a disability because they substantially limit a major life activity when they are in an active phase. And for school and college, that definition of a ‘disability’ works for us because my son does need accommodations in order to remain safe and to have equal access to the curriculum.

Gone are the days when a child with food allergies is seen as an imposition in a school or day care. It’s not up to parents to beg and plead for a safe classroom, hoping that some kind-hearted administrator will ‘get it.’ We have the law on our side, and it comes in the form of allowing the classification of our children’s life threatening food allergies as a ‘disability.’