ADA and Celiac

I thought that I had written this article. In looking back through my articles, I have not. We need to talk about celiac disease and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are three cases that talk about celiac and the ADA – Leslie University, Rider University, and the Williamsburg case. We are going to talk about all three and see where we end up.

In 2012, a Leslie University student with celiac disease sued the university. Leslie University requires all students living on campus to purchase the meal plan and said that they could not provide gluten free meals for the plaintiff. The Department of Justice settled with Leslie University on behalf of the student saying that, “Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA – particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma, or anaphylactic shock.” Here is the link to the DOJ settlement statement in plain English.

Here we have the first mention of celiac disease and food service. I think this case is unique in that it says that food allergies “might” be considered a disability under the ADA. Furthermore, they go on to say that the only reason the DOJ won in this case was because Leslie University made everyone living on campus to purchase a meal plan, therefore they had to supply safe meals. They also say that this standard does not apply to restaurants. They say if a restaurant commonly swaps out ingredients for preference, they must also accommodate swaps for gluten free items.

Next up, the Rider University settlement. In 2019, at Rider University the same thing happened. The university said that they could not provide safe meals for people with food allergies, yet forced students living on campus to purchase their meal plan. Same thing here – the University must accommodate students with allergen-free food preparation areas in the dining facilities. Also, as with the Leslie University settlement, the university must allow students to “pre-order” allergen safe food. This settlement added the requirement for a dietitian to be on staff.

In a new twist Rider University must allow qualifying students to opt out of the mandatory meal plan. So, now, purchasing a meal plan for qualifying students is optional and an acceptable alternative to the students eating on the meal plan. So, now the University will provide safe meals or you can cook your own meals.

Now, here is the Williamsburg case. A boy on a field trip with his class is forced to purchase the meal that goes with the field trip. He is uncomfortable with the food preparation, brought his own lunch, and wants to eat with his classmates in the restaurant. The restaurant said that they have allergen protocols in place to keep him safe. The boy refuses due to poor experiences at other restaurants and was sent outside to eat his lunch. The heartbreaking part of this one is that is was raining outside – that tugs on the heart strings, but is not a part of the facts.

Which now begs the question, the restaurant said they have allergen protocols in place and can accommodate his needs, should he be forced the leave the restaurant to eat his meal brought from home? Should he have eaten the meal they assured him would be safe? Could they have provided a safe meal? With over 33% of gluten free meals in restaurants containing gluten, is a 1 in 3 shot good enough? This is where the Williamsburg case gets hard and needs to be fully examined.

Also, the Williamsburg case has not been settled. Williamsburg said that the case should be thrown out because they offered and were confident they could provide a gluten free meal. An appeals courts said, maybe you could or maybe you couldn’t but this case can move forward because this child should have been protected under the ADA.

Also, this kid does not have celiac disease but a “severe gluten intolerance”. Now, for me, gluten intolerance is only something that can be proven in the negative – all other tests are negative for celiac, SIBO, etc. but you still seem to have trouble with gluten. So, I’m a little hesitant here to trust this diagnosis, but that is just my bias. But food allergies are covered under the ADA, so we will have to see where this goes. I think a stronger case could have been brought by someone with celiac, but again, that’s just me.

Now, if the restaurant can prove that they could have provided a gluten free meal, then I think this case is over and the boy will lose. If the restaurant cannot prove they could have provided a gluten free meal, then this opens a whole pandora’s box of issues. I worry that if the boy wins restaurants will no longer even offer a gluten free option for fear of being sued.

Also, I found this regarding school lunches. When accompanied by a physican’s note, a school lunch program must provide appropriate and allergen-friendly meals to children at no additional charge. But the child always has the option of bring their own meals. I gotta tell you, it is probably safer to pack a meal at home than to trust the school to provide a safe meal. I would trust a university long before I would trust my local schools to provide a safe meal.

As I’m reading all of this, I’m coming to the following conclusions. I think that if you are required to purchase a meal plan – on a cruise, all inclusive vacation, etc. – then the provider must be able to provide a safe meal. If you are going to a location (theme park, water park, etc.) that does not allow outside food and provides no gluten free options, then you are allowed to bring food. If the location offers a single gluten free option, even if it is gross, you will not be able to bring your own food.

If a restaurant makes modifications to any of their meals, they must make gluten free accommodations. That doesn’t mean it will be safe, it means they must try.

If a child receives lunch at school and a physician that has the ability to write medical prescriptions fills out the appropriate form, the school must provide a safe meal at no additional charge. I would say though, you are probably much, much safer sending lunch. Also understand that any accommodation – access to a fridge or microwave – for a child bringing lunch to school, disabled or not, is not required to be accommodated because no other child is given that option. Now, if a physician wrote a note saying that the child’s lunch must be refrigerated or microwaved, that might be something different and a whole other fight.

Someone sent me a message the other day regarding their family and a restaurant. The restaurant couldn’t provide a safe meal, so they allowed the person with celiac disease to bring in their own meal. As a result, the person that sent me the message said they tipped well and would return to the restaurant often. I thought this was exceptionally gracious of the restaurant and a win-win for all involved. Kudos to the restaurant! I wouldn’t expect this everywhere but when you find somewhere that is this excellent, they should be celebrated!

This is my less than sophisticated interpretation of the ADA rules and celiac disease. I’m not a lawyer, I’m reading these cases, interpreting what I read, and offering my opinion. My opinion may not be legally accurate, so don’t take it as gospel. A lawyer versed in Disability Law might have a completely different take on the situation and I would welcome their interpretation.

Finally, I want us to have the rights and privileges we deserve, but I don’t think of us as disabled. I think if we are forced to eat somewhere, they have to provide a safe meal. If we aren’t forced to eat somewhere, then it is our choice to eat at that place. We can make a decision to eat there or not. But it is still our responsibility to keep ourselves safe. Even though 1 in 3 gluten free restaurant meals are not gluten free, that means 66% of them are. So, it is a risk to eat out, but with some research and good questions, I think we can do it!

That’s what I’m thinking about today.

I guess tomorrow I will talk about how to order safely at a restaurant.

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