At this point, it feels like we all know someone who avoids gluten. A brother, child, parent, friend, co-worker, spouse, roomate; there are an estimated 40 million Americans who have reduced or eliminated their consumption of wheat, barley, rye and other gluten based products for a variety of health and lifestyle reasons.
Gluten avoidance can initially feel like a debilitating way of life, but now, with a recent ruling from the Justice Department, food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA. Individuals with food allergies may have an autoimmune response to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma and anaphylaxis.
In addition, celiac disease, which is triggered by consuming food products that contain gluten, can cause permanent damage to the surface of the small intestines and an inability to absorb certain nutrients. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies that deny vital nourishment to the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs. Celiac disease affects about 1 in 133 Americans.
In January, the Justice Department announced an agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., to ensure that students with celiac disease and other food
allergies can partake of the university’s meal plan and food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The agreement was precipated by a complaint in 2009 that Lesley had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, because students who had celiac disease and other issues could not “fully and equally enjoy” the dining services.
Under the agreement, the school has agreed to:
- Continually provide ready-made hot and cold gluten- and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines.
- Develop individualized meal plans for students with food allergies, and allow those students to pre-order allergen free meals, that can be made available at the university’s dining halls in Cambridge and Boston.
- Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods and to avoid cross-contamination.
- Enable students to request food made without allergens, and ensure that a supply of allergen-free food is available.
- Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that offer food without allergens.
- Display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens.
- Train food service and University staff about food allergy related issues.
Food allergies were already a priority at many institutions, but “By implementing this agreement, Lesley University will ensure students with celiac disease and other conditions can obtain safe and nutritional food options,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, in a recent statement.
Thomas Murphy, senior attorney with the Disability Law Center, a statewide advocacy group, said that the Lesley case “certainly could have wide-ranging implications for area universities and that schools should read the accord to ensure their dining services are compliant. All students at other schools have the same rights as the students at Lesley.”