One of the things that I’ve found fascinating in my study of the “culture” of food allergy over the past six months is the way that the meaning of food allergy can change depending on the situation and the people involved. I’m jotting down some preliminary thoughts about this matter in response to a question from a Twitter follower, but it’s an issue that I will be thinking about until the dissertation is turned in.
The question that prompts me to write this is this, from @rivkale: “My first grader experiences social challenges because of her allergies. Are allergic kids a form of minority?”
My first thought (and my question to the questioner) was, what’s a minority? There is certainly a numerical aspect to this word. The groups we think of as “minorities” in the United States are typically those who make up less than a numerical majority of our population. But it quickly gets more complicated than that. We expect that “minorities” have different cultural/ethnic traditions or physical characteristics than what we think of as the “normal” person who is a member of a majority group. “Minority” is also a tricky word in this country because it’s bound up with multiple histories of slavery, immigration, and cultural assimilation. Because of this legacy, the word has complicated contemporary politics and can evoke political debate about policies that grant people in particular groups preferential access to services or extra consideration for schooling and jobs. And, as the original questioner points out, there’s an expectation that people who are a member of a minority suffer socially from their numerical underrepresentation.
Because the word “minority” carries so much baggage, I would personally hesitate to call allergic kids a minority group.
There are other labels or categories that it might be tempting to use to describe food allergic kids as a group. I’ll talk about one by way of comparison: disability (or the adjective disabled). I’ve learned that when it comes to keeping food allergic children safe in school, many parents lean on disability law (often Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) to get schools to comply with accommodation plans. Does that mean that kids with food allergies ought to be classified as people with disabilities?
Not necessarily. My impression from my research is that disability laws are a way to get school staff on board with simple adjustments to classroom life so that kids don’t reactions. The aim is helping kids participate fully while staying safe. The benefit seems to be that school districts typically already have procedures in place for coming up with plans to help students participate in the classroom that use disability law. Using disability laws is a strategic way to inform educators about how important it is to keep allergens out of classrooms and opens up opportunities to train them how to help allergic kids if something goes wrong. Ultimately, following disability protocols gets people talking about allergies, reduces the liability for schools, and helps food allergic kids stay safe.
Personally, I try to avoid this labels. As a social scientist, I’ve been trained to be as specific as possible when referring to groups of people. That’s why I’ll typically use a precise, descriptive phrase like “people with food allergies” or “allergic kids”, rather than using a more complicated word like “minority”.