Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is Celiac Disease a Disability?

On December 28th, an article was published on legalnewsline.com with information regarding the PF Changs lawsuit.  Most of the comments I've seen up to this point are of individuals referencing the case that was used as a precedent to this case (a student sued Lesley University regarding their lack of gluten free options on the schools meal plans), and I've decided to write in an attempt to clear things up. It's become obvious to me that people are either not reading the article in its entirety, they're only reading the title, or they're only reading comments rather than anything in the article. If you were to read the article in it's entirety, I think it would make more sense.

First, in case anyone chooses to only read a small portion of this (as it seems most people do with a lot of things on the internet), I'd like to summarize what I believe is the point of the article. The PF Chang's case was ultimately dismissed. This was not a statement that celiac disease is not a disability, but rather that gluten-free menu items are not the same as other menu items. Restaurants have the right to charge what they determine is appropriate for items. The end of the article states the following:
In the P.F. Chang's case, Judge Ronald Whyte denied P.F. Chang’s motion to dismiss because, he wrote, that although the court had not found specific information proving that celiac disease constituted a disability under the ADA, the “plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to support her claim that she has a disability that impacts a major life activity.”
Whyte noted “on a more complete factual record, the court might reach a different conclusion.” He also stated that it may be difficult, or impossible for Phillips to prove her claims.
“The ultimate question is whether P.F. Chang’s, in providing gluten-free meals, is providing different products or whether the price differential with regular meals is a pretext for discrimination against those with celiac disease,” Whyte wrote.
Gluten-free menu items can not include or be exposed to wheat, barley, rye or any hybrid of these grains.
“The evidence may establish that gluten-free items are different products for which defendant can charge what it determines is appropriate,” Whyte wrote. “That would not be discriminating against a customer with celiac disease because the gluten-free meals are offered to all customers at the same price.”
Still reading? Here's a little more of the nitty gritty along with my opinions.

Is this fair? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Would you rather have options and pay a little bit extra, or would you rather not have the options at all? Of course restaurants could choose to provide gluten free options for the same price as their regular menu items, but it does ultimately cost them more to ensure you receive a truly gluten free meal. Regular menu items can simply be prepared. Gluten free items usually require one person follow the meal from start to finish. They must use a dedicated area and/or ensure the preparation and cooking areas are clean and free of any sort of contamination. Think about what is necessary for a friend or family member to prepare food that is safe for you to consume--now think about how many people simply aren't willing to go to the extra effort. Do you blame restaurants for not offering options or for needing to charge extra?

So what does all this have to do with the case involving the Lesley University settlement? It really doesn't have a lot to do with it except that the PF Chang's case was filed with the Lesley University case as a legal precedent.
“The Lesley University settlement enforces the rights of students whose food allergies were disabilities,” Rodenbush said. “It doesn’t necessarily make celiac disease a disability in all cases.”
Ultimately, someone attending a university that requires students to purchase a meal plan must accommodate an individuals need for a safe gluten free meal. On the other hand, a restaurant does not have to accommodate an individual choosing to eat there. If a restaurant chooses to make options available, they have every right to charge extra if necessary. If a consumer does not want to pay extra, they have the option of choosing to eat elsewhere. No one is forcing them to eat there. In the case of the student with a meal plan, they were being forced as part of a policy.

In my opinion, if the plaintiff had won this case, it would have opened the door for additional lawsuits against restaurants that don't have any gluten free options. While it would be nice to be able to eat anywhere, it's simply not feasible (at least not right now). Do we really want the whole world to hate the gluten free community because we're demanding options that could potentially cause restaurants to close because they aren't equipped to accommodate us?

So, is celiac disease a disability? Based on this decision, the judge ruled that it is not a disability in all cases. I'm trying to think of similar examples pertaining to other disabilities where accommodations in all situations. I'd like to ask my readers for examples you can think of--when is a disability not a disability in the eyes of the law?

**quoted information is from this link also linked above

ETA: My husband thought of a potential example: restaurants are not required to include braille on their menus for the blind. Is this a time when needs don't have to be accommodated?

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