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Please Understand Food Allergies Are Invisible Disabilities


I was attending a 50th birthday party for a friend of mine when I struck up a conversation with someone I had never met. The conversation, of course, was with a woman who seemed genuinely interested in my quest to make air travel safer for those with food allergies. I told her how my family often receives dirty looks from other passengers when we pre-board a plane to wipe down the area for nut residue. I discussed how some people have laughed when asked not to open nut containers in the confined environment of an airplane. It is often hard to convey the seriousness of a life-threatening food allergy because it is mostly an invisible disability. Then, she began to tell me her own story — or rather that of her daughter. Let’s call her Ashley.

Ashley works at one of the big New York City financial firms, which is quite an accomplishment, since Ashley has cystic fibrosis. Ashley deftly manages her disease by employing various techniques to conserve her energy. She intentionally conceals her daily struggles from coworkers so that she both appears and is treated as normal as possible. Her diagnosis entitled her to receive a handicapped tag for her car, which is logical, because the more she walks, the more fatigued she becomes. She was thankful for the opportunity to reduce her walking to the bare minimum.

However, Ashley had stopped using accessible parking. Why? She receives so many dirty looks and nasty comments that she felt intimidated when using it. To the naked eye, she appears completely healthy, and some uninformed observers accused her of taking advantage or “misusing” the tag. No one who saw her park and get out of her car could imagine the extra work that her taxed lungs and cellular structure endured, because she had no cane, no limp and no obvious visually disability.

How many of us are guilty of pre-judging someone without either becoming fully informed or giving that person the benefit of the doubt? Why are we so judgmental as a society to those we sense are getting away with something, or being treated differently? What does it say about us as people, when we are so quick to have a negative bias against anyone who is “different” or who we perceive as getting a “special” treatment? Why is our first reaction a failure to have empathy? Why not think, “How can I help to make it easier for you because I don’t need the accommodations you do to make life more accessible?” That’s empathy. That’s compassion. That’s the type of world I strive to teach my kids to emulate.

If someone has that handicapped tag, or is pre-boarding a plane with or without an obvious impairment, there is most likely an untold story. Many illnesses or disabilities can be invisible, and that individual could be fighting a battle we don’t understand and cannot see. I acknowledge there are always some who take advantage of the system. They get a tag, or pre-board with a fabricated disability — but I don’t worry about them. They have their own moral compass to follow and they have to look at themselves in the mirror. I am a big believer in that what you reap is what you sow. We need to take the time to recognize that most people do not want special treatment, and they have shown great courage to ask for it.

Getty image by CarrieCaptured