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Are food allergies a disability entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act? If you're a college student, the answer is apparently yes.
Students at Lesley University in Massachusetts were worried about eating in the dining halls because of various food allergies. In 2009, several of them filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, claiming the school wouldn't make accommodations for food allergies.
The DOJ took notice and last month announced a settlement with the university. It's a victory for people who suffer from severe food allergies and don't want to be left out.
Under the terms of the settlement, Lesley will provide allergen- and gluten-free food to students and offer special meal plans for students who have food allergies. The students who filed the complaint will also get $50,000 in damages, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The decision doesn't just affect Lesley. The DOJ found that the ADA applies to people with food allergies, so all universities and similar institutions will have to comply.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. In 2008 the definition of disability was broadened, and it now includes new groups like people with food allergies.
Not only does it prohibit direct discrimination, it also requires organizations to make reasonable accommodations so that persons with disabilities can be included.
That means the school cafeteria has to offer allergen-free meals so long as it's not a significant administrative or financial burden. The fact that it will take some amount of extra planning and money is not enough to make it optional, as long as the burden doesn't cause a severe problem.
The reason for grouping allergies as a disability is to allow for inclusion, reports NPR.
Without accommodations for students with food allergies, those individuals are effectively excluded from participating in a large part of college social life. That's especially true as more and more people are diagnosed with serious food allergies.