Family Sues Historic Site, Alleges Gluten Intolerant Son Faced Discrimination

in Celiac, News
Published: July 21, 2017

The family of an 11-year-old boy with a severe gluten intolerance has filed a lawsuit against Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. They allege discrimination based on disability. The suit says a restaurant at the historic Virginia site would not allow the boy, who was participating in a class trip, to eat his own safe food because of a “no outside food” policy. [Related: historic win in this case.] 

Instead the suits says the 5th grader was forced to eat his meal from home outside the Shields Tavern in the pouring rain. Other students, meantime, enjoyed their lunches inside. His father Brian Doherty, who was a chaperone on the trip in May 2017 with 30 students, describes his son crying and feeling humiliated.

Identified as J.D. in court documents, the boy is a history buff, who began fundraising for this trip in the first grade. He had been eager to learn and experience life in colonial America.

Brought own meal

Doherty says he brought a safe meal to accommodate his son’s special diet. According to the lawsuit documents, J.D. experiences pain, asthma flares, difficulty concentrating if he consumes gluten, “even in trace amounts.” His family says the boy has even had episodes of losing consciousness with gluten consumption. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital have not yet been able to determine whether J.D. has celiac disease or non-celiac gluten-sensitivity.

When the students, including J.D., were seated to eat, Doherty informed Shields Tavern servers that his son couldn’t eat the food because of his gluten intolerance. When he began to bring out the boy’s safe meal, Doherty says he and his son were told to leave immediately if J.D. was going to eat food from outside the establishment.

Their lawsuit was filed on July 19, 2017 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. It claims that Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because J.D. was removed from the tavern for trying to eat food that he required for his medical wellbeing.

A public relations manager at Colonial Williamsburg told Allergic Living the foundation won’t be commenting on the pending litigation. The manager didn’t comment on whether the historic site has a food allergy policy in place.

Dad speaks of “humiliation”

“He was happy to experience Shields Tavern with his friends, now he is uncomfortable eating anything outside of the home because of the embarrassment they inflicted upon him,” said Doherty. “Colonial Williamsburg used J.D.’s disability to humiliate and exclude J.D. in front of his peers, making him sit out in the rain as if he weren’t even worthy of the opportunity to learn.”

Lawyer Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas is representing J.D. and said this is “despicable behavior” by an organization that offers educational programming for students.

“Children with disabilities that require strict adherence to special diets often find themselves on the outside of school parties and social events, but here this child was quite literally removed to the outside in a way that left him feeling humiliated and unworthy,” Vargas said.

Related Reading:

Williamsburg: Historic Win for Gluten-Free and Food Allergy Rights
Williamsburg Appeal: Implications for Allergy Accommodations