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Does the Americans with Disabilities Act cover people with celiac disease?

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Updated January 24, 2013

Does the Americans with Disabilities Act cover people with celiac disease? Getty Images/Andrew Unangst
Question: Does the Americans with Disabilities Act cover people with celiac disease?
Answer:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does plenty more than simply require businesses to provide wheelchair ramps and handicapped-accessible bathrooms. The ADA prevents discrimination in employment based on disability, and it also requires virtually all public facilities to be accessible to those with disabilities.

Would celiac disease or gluten sensitivity be covered under the ADA? The answer is yes, and one recent case involving a college meal plan indicates it may help in certain circumstances. In other cases, though, it may not do you much good.

The ADA definitely applies at colleges where students who live on campus are required to purchase a meal plan, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In late 2012, the DOJ announced a settlement agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., that requires the university to provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options at its dining halls.

Following the DOJ-Lesley University settlement (which also called for the school to pay $50,000 in compensatory damages to previously identified students who have celiac or other food allergies), the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness urged other colleges and universities to adopt accommodations similar to those outlined in the settlement.

However, it's not clear what other cases involving a lack of gluten-free food would be considered a violation of the ADA — in its settlement announcement, the DOJ said only that "food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA" (emphasis mine).

In theory, having celiac disease and gluten sensitivity covered by the ADA should guarantee you access to safe food in other situations where you don't have ready access to outside food sources, such as if you were in jail or were taking a cruise (obviously two very different situations!).

The ADA might also require your employer to provide you with a gluten-free meal if you needed to attend a lunch meeting where the only food available was provided by that employer. The law also should require your employer to allow you more frequent restroom breaks than other workers.

In practice, though, you'll likely have to persuade those in charge that the ADA covers your situation. If you want them to accommodate you with gluten-free food, you'd need to provide extensive guidance to the people preparing the food, and potentially fight to force the institution in question to meet your needs.

Even if you're technically correct about the ADA requirements in your particular situation, you may find it's easier and less disruptive to take care of your own needs, rather than press the point with an employer or an institution. However, in some cases (if you're in jail, for example), you may not have a choice ... but before you decide whether to press your case, it may help you to understand the genesis of the ADA and some of the logic behind it.

ADA Broadened in 2009 to Include Activities Such As 'Eating,' 'Major Bodily Functions'

The ADA contains four main provisions:

  • It prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability
  • It prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities at the local or state government level
  • It prohibits discrimination based on disability from businesses that offer goods, services, facilities or accommodations to the public, and
  • It requires telecommunications companies to take steps to make sure they can offer "functionally equivalent services" to individuals with disabilities.

In 2008, Congress amended the ADA (which originally was approved in 1990) to specify that it covered "major life activities" such as eating. Lawmakers also specified that "major life activities" covered under the Act included "the operation of a major bodily function," including the immune system and the digestive system.

Based on that 2008 expansion, it's clear that both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity fall under the auspices of the ADA, even though they're "invisible disabilities." But the extent of potential accommodations under the law isn't as clear.

What The ADA Can and Can't Do for People with Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity

• The ADA can help you in a problematic hiring situation involving a potential employer. For example, an employer can't discriminate against you in hiring decisions because you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, provided that you're otherwise qualified for the position in question. But this is unlikely to be a frequent occurrence anyway, and there haven't been any discrimination cases involving celiac disease or even food allergies mentioned on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website or in case law.

• The ADA likely can help you if you need more frequent restroom breaks at work. Several court decisions have ruled that more frequent restroom breaks are a "reasonable accommodation" for someone with a disability, but you may not be able to get unlimited access to the restroom if your job requires you to be at a work station continuously or nearly continuously.

• The ADA requires that you be provided with safe food in an emergency shelter or in prison. There's no question about this requirement, but you'll still probably have to educate the people involved in food preparation in order to make it happen.

• The ADA will allow you to bring your own gluten-free food to places where safe food won't be available. Professional mediators helped to decide a case in New Hampshire involving a tour train operator that refused to allow a passenger with food allergies to bring her own food. Ultimately, the tour train operator revised its policies to make them more accommodating to people with allergies.

• The ADA likely can't help you force a restaurant to provide you with gluten-free food. Forcing a restaurant to hold itself ready to meet the needs of everyone with an allergy, regardless of how unusual that allergy might be, probably wouldn't be considered "reasonable" under the law. However, there's no court case that has tested this theory. Rather than attempt to force a restaurant to make you a gluten-free meal by citing the ADA, you'll likely have better luck using my tips for staying gluten-free at restaurants to work cooperatively with the chef and management.

• The ADA might be able to help you force your employer to provide you with gluten-free food when the employer is buying everyone else lunch. However, if you brandish the ADA as a formal weapon in this case, you may find that your employer simply stops buying everyone lunch ... and you'll be the bad guy. You'll be better off working informally with whomever is ordering the lunches to see if you can get something safe for yourself as part of the order.

• The ADA won't help you force the school cafeteria to provide gluten-free lunches for your gluten-free child. That's covered under a different law — Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. See more on this in Working with the School So Your Gluten-Free Child Can Eat Cafeteria Lunches and in Creating A Gluten-Free 504 Plan.

• The ADA does require that most day care and private schools accept children with food allergies. There are some exceptions, however, mainly for religious institutions, so you'll need to determine whether this applies in your specific case.

All in all, the ADA does provide some important protections — both in employment and in public situations — for those of us with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. However, it doesn't provide us with a blank check for all the gluten-free food we want ... and it doesn't relieve us of the necessity of advocating and educating for our own safe food.

Sources:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Accessed April 24, 2012.

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. July 2009. Accessed April 24, 2012.

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Enforcing the ADA: A Status Report, July-September 2004. Accessed April 24, 2012.

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