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Why it's legit to call gluten allergy a 'disability'

After the recent ruling classifying celiac and gluten intolerance as a disability, reactions included outrage and disgust--proving that a lot of people still don't understand the severity of this kind of condition.

Earlier this week I wrote about the December 2012 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Lesley University that ruled to define severe food intolerances, including celiac disease, as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Under a 2009 revision, the ADA now includes any impairment that “substantially limits activity.”

Reactions were (and continue to be) all over the map. "Absurd," "nanny-state overreach," and "laughable" were just a few of the comments I heard. (Add your opinion below!)

Think that food sensitivities don't meet that ADA standard? Ask someone who deals with it every day.

A personal example: When my adult GF son accidentally ate sushi rolls with gluten in them, he got so sick that he missed a week of work. When he was a student at Stanford, before his gluten sensitivity was diagnosed, his increasing sickness caused him to miss and eventually drop classes.

I’d call that a substantial limitation of his activity. (And yes, I was more than a little annoyed that while we were paying the same for his dining-hall meal plan as everyone else was, he couldn’t eat most of the food.)

Then there’s the fact that people with severe food intolerances can suffer debilitating migraines, crippling joint pain, even infertility. The key word there is debilitating: In other words, un-abling, making something impossible that would be possible for a fully healthy person.

I’m not talking about people who give up gluten or some other food simply because they’ve heard it will help them lose weight (thanks but no thanks, Lady Gaga).

But for those people who deal with true food allergies (peanuts and shellfish, for example), sensitivities (such as gluten), and celiac, I think this ruling opens up the conversation in a new and impactful way. It astonishes me how many people still don’t understand the seriousness and pervasiveness of food intolerances. Clearly, the Lesley University outcome will raise the awareness factor, and it remains to be seen how it impacts other food providers, like restaurants.

What's your experience with food intolerance? Is calling it a disability helpful or not?

Discuss this Blog Entry 14

CTSWYERS (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2013


Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

My only problem with labeling ANYTHING a disability is that people can use it to not work and get paid disability. And gluten intolerance is a spectrum, not everyone who goes GF actually suffers from collitis. There is a difference from being a little intolerant, and having a life threatening food allergy. So it adds subjectivity to the "disability" of it. Im tired of people called themselves disabled by things like diet, depression, etc. It is creating a culture of weak, self-disabled, and entitled individuals. Take your meds, control your diet, and go to work like the rest of us.

on Feb 6, 2013

I keep thinking about this, and I think it's the spectrum of "disability" that's the real conundrum when it comes to gluten or other food intolerances. I agree, there's a difference between someone who has such a severe peanut allergy they can't be in a room with an open jar of peanut butter (true story), and someone who gets a stomachache if they eat a bagel.

The problem at Lesley University arose because the meal plan was mandatory. That's not true for restaurants; you can CHOOSE or NOT CHOOSE to eat at a restaurant based on its level of accommodation to your needs. There's no question that a food allergy can result in "severe limitation of activity," the ADA standard for defining disability, but I'm wondering if this ruling with cause that definition to be reconsidered. Again, I am really encouraged that the conversation and awareness is growing!

synikk (not verified)
on Feb 7, 2013

i cant eat anything anymore. i cheat all the time. its impossible not to for me. both because of costs and cravings, good tasting unhealthy GLUTENIZED food is simply more satisfying. is this a disability ? heck yeah it is! i personally believe that anyone should get disability if they dont work. even if the reason is simply that they dont want to. we have enough money going around in this screwed up world already to give everyone barely enough monthly income to eat and live every month. if it is not given? people will still beg for it or get it one way or another, so the money is STILL getting spent!! if this was the way the world is, i doubt most people would succumb to laziness because they would desire better lives and that is where working should come in. we need to re-examine the writings of transcendentalists like thoreau and his walden pond where he discusses his idea that we are all working ourselves to death needlessly. thoreau believed we should only work enough to get by and that any further work should only be done at LEISURE. 40 hours a week just to pay rent and get medical care is not leisure, that is slavery. the control systems try to force us to 'slave' away for the right to exist. BS.

anyways, the truth is, any kind of problem someone has, if it is severe enough will create a mental disability for them. and we are seeing alarming numbers of this on the rise. id recommend anyone who is celiac seeking disability to attempt to get it on terms of mental disability. because not being able to eat what is cheap and tastes great and you have eaten all your life is completely mentally debilitating. i hope someday we see the fall of capitalism and greed and the rise of intelligence and self sufficiency.

Andrew112 (not verified)
on Feb 10, 2013

'Gluten allergy a disability' does sounds a little biased though. We aren't talking about inanimate objects but people.I firmly believe that it is a medical condition that limits certain activities but that doesn't mean it is a disability.A disability is a condition when a person is incapable of doing something because of his physical incapacity.Whereas in case of gluten allergy.the person can perform normal healthy functions as long as he abstains from certain food that are allergens.

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Doreen (not verified)
on Feb 13, 2013

I don't think I have Celiac Disease but I sure have a bad case of gluten intolerance to the extent that I have to make everything I eat in the bread/cookie/cake line and I have to give everything I buy the "third degree" to ensure there are no gluten products involved. It's more a pain in the neck to me - I certainly wouldn't consider myself disabled. I'm 81 years old, walk 3 miles a day, weigh 92lbs. soaking wet and apart from my thyroid, I think I'm healthy as a horse.

on Feb 14, 2013

Great comments. Andrew112, I think you've described a helpful definition of disability. As I said in an earlier comment, it could be that the current ADA definition needs refining in light of this ruling. But when a person is physically prevented from going to class and/or learning because the school's mandatory food choices cause illness, that person is not able to abstain--so they are made incapable by their physical limitations. I'm guessing that was the rationale behind bringing up the issue at Lesley in the first place.

Doreen, I appreciate your "I'm not a victim" mentality. You're an inspiration!

on Mar 24, 2013

Thanks, Elisa, for this blog! We suspect my daughter is gluten intolerant and to what degree we're not sure. She has another year before she goes off to college and the whole food thing will most likely be on our list of determining factors. I went on a GF diet and was amazed that my joints, that had begun to get achy recently, feel pain-free. I'm so excited to discover this but, at the same time, developing an appreciation for how difficult a GF diet is!

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 27, 2013

Gluten is intolarence when someone can die from peanut and nuts shellfish I wish my son could feel sick for a week than have to worry he could die from wrong bite so please stop saying it is an allergy do you carry an epi pen ? This is why people don,t get ALLERGIES

on Jul 22, 2013

You are right, gluten intolerance is NOT a food allergy; in fact, the current official term is gluten sensitivity. It's a wholly different thing to have a true, life-threatening food allergy reaction, such as to peanuts or shellfish. I've clarified the language in the blog. Thanks.

JGS (not verified)
on Jul 11, 2013

I am an "unofficially" diagnosed celiac. I have several severe medical conditions that can be directly connected to severe gluten allergies. I do believe that the 'gluten-free' should include all grains. Corn can cause reactions just as severe as wheat and other grains that are included in the gluten-free grain list. I currently eat a grain-free diet. This is very hard because if I want to have a nice dinner out with my hubby I have to question ALL ingredients use to prepare my food. Most oils used in resturants, even the 'high class' one use cheap oils such as a vegetable(corn)/soy blend. Which I can't have. It's hard for me to travel because airports and airlines are very 'lean' on even offering gluten-free options. I love to cruise. Cruise lines are great at providing food for my dietary needs. But getting to the port via airlines is a problem. I think that if it is considered a disability maybe there would be more options in these areas. That's my two cents worth. I just think there should be better options.

on Jul 22, 2013

JGS, I have been hearing about more people who experience reactions to grains such as corn (and soy) ... makes me wonder about the GMO issue, since corn and soy are two of the most overwhelmingly genetically modified crops grown in the U.S., but that's another story:

One point: It wouldn't be correct to include all grains in the "gluten free" designation, because grains such as corn do not contain the gluten protein. However, I'll be interested to see if a "grain-free" designation starts to appear on packaged foods and menus for people with issues such as yours. Good luck!

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on Aug 18, 2013

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