Food Allergy: An ADA Disability?

There is much concern and debate about how the youth programming world will manage the scope and pace of the food allergen craze, not to mention the speculation of allergies falling under the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Whether it’s dealing with medical diagnosis vs. pure suspicion, life-threatening vs. sensitivity, or allergy-free vs. allergy friendly, the issues are many and the problem is growing. The old adage, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say” will be very important as youth program leaders try to communicate with parents the type of program they offer, and more importantly, what type of allergen controls they have in place.

Among those topics, the notion that a food allergy could be considered as an ADA disability is met with much bewilderment. Why? Consider the difference between a school setting where there is at least some containment of food ingredients in a static environment versus an outdoor wilderness program where storage is limited and the environment is very dynamic throughout the program. Certainly, no single set of expectations can fully address the myriad of settings of which youth will be involving themselves in throughout the year. 

Nevertheless, it appears that the push for ADA compliance for allergens is fully engaged, and youth programs must adapt accordingly either mandatorily, or by discretion, given their status. According to the USDA, “when in the licensed physician’s assessment, food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions, the child’s condition would meet the definition of ‘disability’.” What is more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture states in its guidelines for accommodating students with special dietary concerns that when a physician diagnoses a food allergy as potentially causing life-threatening reactions, the child’s condition meets the definition of a disability under Section 504.¹

Does that mean that this ruling applies to every youth service organization in the country?  Not necessarily. Section 504 applies to any school that receives federal money (i.e., all public schools and many private schools), and applies to a variety of health conditions, including a life-threatening food allergy. In short, if your organization qualifies as an entity under Title II or III of the ADA, then it likely falls within the scope of these requirements, especially if you’re receiving federal assistance. However, there are exempted statuses, such as religious organizations, that are allowed to be discretionary rather than mandatory. 

So where do you begin in determining your status, and how to execute a plan? I would start at the F.A.R.E website by clicking http://www.foodallergy.org/advocacy/section-504-plans. 

¹F.A.R.E. Section 504 and Written Management Plans 

Rick Braschler is the full-time director of risk management for Kanakuk Kamps, and the senior risk consultant for CircuiTree Solutions Camp Risk Consulting. He has been a licensed insurance broker for more than 20 years and assists camps around the country with selecting brokers, identifying coverage gaps, and saving premiums. Contact him at 417-266-3337, or rsbraschler@kanakuk.com .