October is Disability Employment Awareness Month – a time where we recognize the contributions of people with disabilities in our workforce. It’s also the opportune time to educate ourselves on how to be more accommodating for our colleagues and coworkers who may have a disability.
It’s been 10 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended in 2008, but educating employers and employees alike about the changes has proven to be a long and difficult process. Whether a CEO, an HR professional, an event professional or a manager, you should know that individuals with food allergies, celiac disease and other medical conditions that require them to eat a specific way, are now provided civil rights protections under the disabilities law.
Major Life Activities
The 2008 amendment broadens the scope of what we consider a disability. If an individual has a condition that interferes with recognized major life activities, the amendment considers that individual to have a disability. These activities include, but are not limited to:
“caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”
Major Bodily Functions
The amendment also addresses major bodily functions. Like with life activities, if an individual has a condition that interferes with any of these vital bodily functions, their disability should be considered. These functions include, but are not limited to:
“functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”
When we take a look at these definitions from the perspective of food, we soon realize the existence of invisible disabilities, as is the case when a food allergy or sensitivity is not visibly apparent, at least until an emergency.
An employee with a peanut allergy has an invisible disability. A colleague with celiac disease has an invisible disability. In a very real and legal sense, food allergies and sensitivities are disabilities, and it’s our responsibility to acknowledge their special needs and provide a healthy, safe and inclusive working environment for them.
Our Professional Responsibility
As HR professionals, event planners or food service providers, it’s critical to be aware of the invisible disabilities that affect major life activities and bodily functions defined in the ADA amendment. If we do not, there is a greater risk of negligence liability regarding food allergies and other dietary needs in the workplace. We cannot and should not keep ignoring employees’ needs when providing food and beverage in corporate cafeterias, vending machines, and at company meetings and events. Even if all that means is offering a wider menu selection or permitting outside food and beverage to enter the premises.
We also need to be aware of possible discriminatory situations our employees might experience from their coworkers, such as harassment, bullying, or threats. Hopefully, you will never have to deal with those situations. If you do, consider providing training to the management teams or the entire staff that discusses invisible disabilities and the importance of showing empathy and respect for others in the workplace.
When employers provide workplace accommodations for people with food allergies and celiac disease, they create environments that emphasize employee well-being, authenticity, and inclusiveness, showing employees they are supported and appreciated. Who wouldn’t want to work in that type of environment? Disability Employment Awareness
If you think that your staff should undergo a training on invisible disabilities, please reach out so that I can provide some guidance on how to offer a comprehensive and effective program. Disability Employment Awareness