Though I wasn’t diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity until halfway through college, I remember actively NOT participating in a meal program at my university because of my allergy. I knew that one of the major draws of the dining hall lifestyle included smuggling bagels in paper towels for the following morning’s breakfast, or grabbing one (or three) extra cookies for the road. I was “getting my money’s worth.” But being relegated to an untrustworthy salad bar and questionable hot food changed my view of unlimited buffet dinners. I felt the suspect dining halls were not worth the health risk, and embraced a more “grown up” grocery shopping lifestyle instead.
Interestingly and recently, however, college students decided to speak out about their limited options at full price. Students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts expressed their discontent with a required meal plan that could not sufficiently meet their gluten-free needs. In an inspiring gesture of support, the Department of Justice came to determine that these gluten-free students are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that the insufficient meal plan was “preventing people from eating,” which in turn prevented “them from accessing their educational program,” as advocated by a member of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Eve Hill.
Furthermore, it has been determined that a disability should be defined as an environment that disables a person, placing the blame on the environment, not on the person inflicted with disease or other inhibiting factors. As such, living in a gluten-filled environment rendered these celiac students disabled, not the other way around.
While I am welcoming of the increased protection of the GF community with awareness and support, I am wary of opening this pandora’s box. To what end does this new definition of a disability extend? Don’t get me wrong, I definitely would love to see protection under the law for celiacs, but is it too extreme to liken it to other handicaps? When should something stop being a disability and start being the norm?