Celiac Disease, Gluten Intolerance, and Food Allergies Protected Under the Disabilities Act?

Are you allergic to gluten or perhaps intolerant? Do you experience an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts? You and others with food allergies may be protected under the federal disabilities act. In a recent law suit settlement it was suggested that food allergies may constitute a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, if they are severe enough.

Image: The Word Gluten, Justice Scale, Law Book, and Gavel

A Lesley University college student in Cambridge, Massachusetts had severe food allergies. The students are forced to pay for meals at the college, but this student could not eat their food. Following the college’s rejection for the student to be exempt for paying for a meal plan, that he could not eat, the student complained to the federal government.


The U.S. Justice Department stated that food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. This provides hope for those with food allergies, as well as gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, expressed that those with food allergies would not have access to education without being offered a suitable menu to fit their dietary needs.

Von Spakovsky, a former civil rights employee who served under President Bush, disagrees. He argued that food allergies are not severe enough and do not prevent students from accessing education.

Others argue that because there are thousands of different food allergies, it is nearly impossible for a school, or a restaurant and to meet the needs of multiple diets. Making it law to cater to all of these diets could expose institutions and restaurants to legal liabilities. Colleges have already taken a strong hit with higher tuition. If they had to accommodate everyone with diabetes, celiac disease, peanut allergies, and more, they fear they the additional cost implications. Insurance fees would skyrocket for restaurants, cafeterias, or anywhere else that serves food.

However, colleges often require students to eat on campus. The settlement in this case may change that rule in some schools. The legal liability may differ depending upon the circumstances. If one were familiar with a restaurant, the liability of the restaurant owner may be waved. However, if someone just walked in off of the street, ordered something off of the menu, explained their food allergy, yet became sick after eating there, it could result in a law suit.

Last month’s settlement involving Lesley University is suddenly sparking a lot of attention, after lying dormant for almost a month. The settlement requires the college to offer gluten free items on their menu and make the necessary accommodations to protect the food from gluten cross-contamination for students with celiac disease. It was reported by Mary Pat Lohse, the chief of staff and senior adviser to Lesley University’s president, that they have been working with the Justice Department regarding students’ complaints for 3 years; have already implemented most of items in this settlement; and will offer gluten free options to those with severe intolerances to gluten.

Alice Bast, president and founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness chimed in by stating, “All colleges should heed this settlement and take steps to make accommodations. To our community this is definitely a precedent.”

It is the consensus that those with celiac disease, who cannot tolerate gluten without becoming ill is of major concern, but those with gluten-sensitivity, which is quoted as being often self-diagnosed, may not be considered under the Disabilities Act. I suppose it is time to get some form of diagnosis from a professional as soon as possible if you desire to be protected. However, it is not suggested to go back to a gluten diet just for a diagnosis.

As part of the law suit settlement, Lesley University stated that they will offer gluten free options and allow students to pre-order menu items. In addition, they will provide  dedicated kitchen space for the storage and preparation of this food, and train their staff on how to avoid gluten cross-contamination. They also agreed to pay each student that was affected $50,000.

The Justice Department had been thwarted with accusations that the government was going too far by dictating what a college could serve on their menu. Eve Hill of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice replied, “We are not saying what the general meal plan has to serve or not. We are saying that when a college has a mandatory meal plan they have to be prepared to make reasonable modifications to that meal plan to accommodate students with disabilities.”

The ADA (Americans with Disabilites Act) Amendments Act of 2008, that went into effect on January 1, 2009, broadened the definition of “disability” to include other impairments that substantially limit a major life activity. No bearing was given to those who used assistive devices such as wheel chairs and walker, those with hearing devices, medical therapies, or supplies (other then eyeglasses and contact lenses). Clarification was made to what is considered as an impairment episodes, and even those in remission, to be those that substantially limit a major life activity when active, including epilepsy and post traumatic stress disorder.

Those with celiac disease suffer when they ingest gluten (wheat, barley, rye and most oats). They become ill and do not absorb nutrients well. It can result in over 250 symptoms including digestive issues such as severe bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, and as serious as malnutrition, and even death, if not treated.

Lesley University stated that they will accommodate those with severe gluten issues. They need to look at the big picture. Those with a gluten sensitivity or undiagnosed gluten intolerance who are not accommodated could become worse if they were to continue to consume gluten. That could open the door to additional law suits.

Because so many people are on the gluten-free diet, many colleges have already made accommodations for their students, or the students are exempt from the mandatory meal plans. With this recent law suit now setting precedent, they may be considering vamping up their offerings. What are your thoughts?

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