Food Allergy as Disability: Attitudes Across the Generations

One piece of preparation for the NYU conference I’m presenting at this week is to (re)read work by the more senior scholars who are moderating and presenting at the event. In particular, I’ve returned to work by two anthropologists, Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg, who write, often together, about how disability affects family configurations and dynamics.

For today, I want to talk about a quote that stood out to me from their 2012 essay, “Anthropology and the Study of Disability Worlds.” They write,

Our post-ADA** students, who grew up with disability present in their families and communities, have taught us that the next generation has already accepted the demedicalization of disability.

Basically, this quote makes the observation that today’s young people are more accepting of physical, psychiatric, and developmental difference than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. They see disabilities as part of the normal variation of human experience rather than medical problems that need to be hidden and fixed. The authors make this observation based on their interactions with the college and graduate students they teach at NYU.

When I saw this, I though, Wow! I’ve heard this same idea expressed so many times in the past few months! Food allergy folks are already on top of this one!

This idea first cropped up for me in the context of food allergies during the session on emotional well-being at the blogger’s conference. During the session Q&A period, speakers and audience members shared vignettes about how their anxieties about loosening the leash on their children were assuaged when they noticed how protective and conscientious their children’s friends were about keeping them safe. They would assist them with asking for accommodations or remind them about checking food labels. For parents, the idea that their kids had help from their friends with managing food allergies counterbalanced evidence that food allergic kids were subject to bullying for their condition. It also meant that kids weren’t “going it alone” without their parents: their peers “got it” and were there to offer a helping hand. Knowing their kids had a support system, the discussants reported, made it easier to give kids more freedom.

This idea has also come up in conversations and interviews. A theme that often comes up when I talk to parents of food allergic kids is how other parents can be insensitive toward them and their children. I’ve encountered this theme three times in the past week – twice while talking to parents and once while talking to a medical professional who works with parents. The kids themselves just want to hang out. For them, having a friend with a food allergy is just the way it is. If their friend has never been able to eat certain foods, it’s just a difference they take for granted. While adults may have set ideas about the kinds of foods or activities that should be served at a birthday parties, kids are still learning these traditions. For many kids, their party isn’t ruined just because they’re served a different kind of snack, or none at all. All of this means that parents are sometimes more anxious about and less accepting of difference than their kids with friends with food allergies. As one parent put it, the current generation of children seems to be remarkably “empathetic” when it comes to difference and disability.

This is not, of course, the ignore the fact that there ARE bullies among kids. But it’s not necessarily a given. It’s interesting to me to think about this generational difference because it shows that ideas about illness and disability aren’t set in stone – they can, and do, change. In the case of food allergies, I’m hearing hints that generational changes in attitudes are occurring quite quickly.

What do you think? Do kids seem more accepting of food allergies than their parents and other adults? Are there particularly good examples of this generational shift – or troubling exceptions?

**The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if you’re not familiar, is an important piece of United States legislation enacted in 1990 that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability. While it hasn’t come close to automatically breaking down barriers to people with disabilities, it does provide a legal basis for individuals to force businesses, schools, and other organizations to provide so-called “reasonable accommodations” for disabilities.

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