Restaurants are the shared dining spaces of our local communities that embody both city character and culture. Yet this pillar of social and economic life often poses a substantive challenge to the 32 million Americans living with food allergies. For us to dine out safely demands restaurant industry awareness, proper cleaning protocols, staff training, along with our own individual research and self-advocacy.
In restaurants, a diner’s food allergies are ironically both visible and invisible. A cursory glance doesn’t reveal my mental risk-calculating or my meticulous advance planning, with a bag containing two epinephrine auto-injectors, and a supply of antihistamines. Nor will anyone see my acute attention for a telltale symptom.
However, communications with waiters, chefs, and managers about my restrictions mark me as “different”. Every time I order food with a friend observing, our conversation turns toward my various allergies, without fail. Ordering out can feel embarrassing, and I often apologize for the inconvenience that I’m causing the waitstaff and kitchen.
I know this attitude needs reframing. A severe food allergy is not a dietary preference; it is considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that seriously limits one or more major life activities. Considering that most people eat three meals and several snacks per day, food allergies certainly are categorized as a disability.
The ADA prohibits discrimination in public accommodations (restaurants, hotels, schools, amusement parks, etc.) and would legally require that these venues provide reasonable accommodations. The U.S. Court of Appeals asserted in Fraser v. Goodale (2003) that we must “permit those who are disabled because of severe dietary restrictions to enjoy the protections of the ADA.” The protections of ADA include protection from discrimination and a guarantee of accommodations.
Rights to Eat ‘Outside’ Food
Although that case is a handy legal precedent, you need practical examples to follow how precedent can help someone with a food allergy or gluten intolerance. In 2019, a game-changing case emerged. A student attended a school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg. At lunch, the local restaurant did not allow the student, known as J.D., to eat his safe, outside food. It was decided in J.D. v Williamsburg Foundation that J.D. was protected under the ADA and could, in fact, eat his own food due to the severity of his gluten intolerance. It is a decision with significant impact: food allergies and intolerances were a disability that legally required dining accommodation.
Now, the situation that J.D. faced in Colonial Williamsburg is eerily similar to a dining experience I had with my mother in late October 2021.
Picture it: Dim, orange light filled the hotel restaurant. As it was late evening, only two other tables were occupied when my mom and I were seated next to a gallery of lofty windows. My mom had decided to fly 1,000 miles for a short visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts. This meal would be our first dinner together in months.
After my week of midterm exams at Harvard University, my body ached from intense writing and concentrated study. All I wanted was to enjoy an allergy-safe meal with my mom. She was staying at this hotel, and preferred to eat at its restaurant. However, earlier in the evening, I’d looked over the restaurant’s menu to discover: almost every dish contained some type of tree nut.
Based on past experiences with cross-contamination, I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat anything safely here with my severe tree nut allergy. But it was still a convenient option. We simply picked up a few sushi rolls from Café Sushi that I knew were safe for me to eat. As I often do at other restaurants, I intended to eat my “safe” food while my mom ordered from the menu.
‘Where Is Your Disability?’
After we sat down at the hotel restaurant, my mom ordered two appetizers for herself. After receiving them, I took out my container of sushi rolls and began to eat. After only a few bites, the server came to our table and explained that the restaurant did not allow any outside food. He offered to bring over the manager. I was instantly reassured. I felt certain that a manager working in food services would understand the limitations posed by this serious medical condition, and empathize about this special occasion with my mom.
I calmly explained to the manager the severity of my food allergies and why it was too risky for me to select from the menu. My nut allergies are not just a dietary preference, I emphasized that they are actually considered a disability.
I was taken aback by her cold response. She stated that the restaurant handles people with food allergies often, and they “never make exceptions” to this rule for outside food – even for people with allergies. I asked if we could simply eat our food outside, where we would be completely alone. I was denied again.
Suddenly, the manager interrupted me with a hand gesture. “Where is your disability?” she demanded. “I don’t see anything wrong with you.”
My jaw dropped. I responded, “Yes, exactly. You can’t see it. It is an invisible disability.” My poise and brave facade began to crumble. Her words cut deep. I was shocked, angry, and incredulous.
Advocating for Disability Rights
A few tears began to roll down my face, and the manager quickly realized the gravity of what she had said. In a hurried about-face, she turned to my mom to apologize for her ignorance about my food allergy. The manager then turned to me and said that she would make an exception, but just this once.
The tears didn’t stop as I nodded in half-acknowledgment. With her watching, I silently packed up my sushi and returned it to the takeout bag. Despite the manager’s permission, I couldn’t bring myself to eat my dinner. I felt sick and demeaned.
No person wishes to have a serious medical condition, nor do I really want to bring my own “safe” food to any restaurant. Must I constantly choose between missing out on an important social occasion and putting my health at risk?
The answer is that I don’t have to: the law is in place to protect my rights and my life. The legal decisions I mentioned earlier are there to protect and empower us to stand up for our physical health and mental well-being. My experience on that October evening makes it clear: our collective advocacy is still direly needed. Our disability may be invisible, but we surely are not.
Up in her hotel room that evening, my mom and I discussed what had transpired. Rather than linger upon the manager’s abrasive and hurtful insinuation, I came away expressing determination to be my own advocate.
There is a certain power in knowing that you are protected by law when walking into a restaurant, but it requires us to be versed in our rights. After I graduate this December, I hope to attend law school. I would like to fight for people like J.D. whose disability was originally dismissed, and his rights violated.
Alexa Jordan is a senior at Harvard University. She can be found at @alexa.jordan on Instagram.
Williamsburg Appeal: Historic Win for Gluten-free and Food Allergy Rights
More articles from: Making Food Allergies So Visible Series
Step-by-Step Guide to Dining Out with Food Allergies
Dining with Food Allergies: Factors Critical to a Safe Experience and Common Errors
This Allergic Life: It’s High Time Restaurants Got Serious About Food Allergies