Keeping Invisible Disabilities in Mind When Planning Company Events

By Tracy Stuckrath

It’s the first day of your company’s annual sales meeting for twenty-five people. While you ate a hearty breakfast at home before the meeting, you’re starving and ready for lunch. As you walk into the break room, you see that your boss’ administrative assistant ordered pizza for lunch.

Your stomach flips and your heart sinks. Pizza is not a safe or viable meal for you because you have celiac disease. What makes it worse is that despite the fact the pizza place she purchased from offers gluten-free pizza, she only ordered “regular” pizza and a large tossed “salad.” As you prepare to eat the salad, you read the ingredients on the salad dressing and find out it too, contains gluten. It will just be iceberg lettuce and a few tomatoes for lunch for you.

You felt very left out and overlooked—and now, even hungrier than before. You’ve worked here for a few years and the office is not that big. You thought she knew better.

Did you know that celiac disease, food allergies and intolerances are considered invisible disabilities? Did you know that people with celiac disease, diabetes and/or food allergies have the same protections afforded by the ADA as others with disabilities?

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) defined a disability as any individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The 2008 extension of the Act was written to add additional terminology to major life activities—eating, digestive system, immune system, and cardiovascular system—and, in turn, providing civil rights protections for individuals with allergies, including food allergies, and other dietary needs, like celiac disease. In an essence, it was updated to better recognize invisible disabilities.

These invisible disabilities affect many of your employees, and it’s important to be mindful of them when planning office activities, meals, or outside functions. Below are some of the most commonly encountered food-related invisible disabilities, and some ways to keep them in mind when hosting meals at the office.

Food Allergies

Triggered by eating, touching or inhaling a food protein, reactions can range from mild (hives, coughing) to severe (throat closing, chest pain, fainting) and can be potentially fatal.

While more than 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions, eight foods—wheat, egg, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish and soy—cause more than 90 percent of all allergic reactions.

Before food is served at work, ask employees if anyone has food allergies and what you need to avoid to keep them safe. Label all foods with the allergens they contain. Depending on the severity of the allergy and the trigger, inform all employees of the need to not bring that food in the workplace.

Diabetes

A life-long genetic disease requiring a person to closely manage their diet daily. A healthy meal for diabetic is generally the same as healthy eating for anyone—low in fat, moderate in salt and sugar, lean protein, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and fruit. Avoid serving only heavily processed convenience foods—fried foods, food and beverages with added sugar and foods that have excess butter, cheese and/or oils—in the office.

When this discomfort or worse, life-threatening dangers, are ignored, you are not only ignoring your duty of care, you are endangering people with an invisible disability. Click To Tweet

Digestive Disorders, Such Celiac Disease

Disorders of the digestive system which cause a person’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract to not work properly or at all. Many triggers for these disorders—celiac disease, Crohn’s, diverticular diseases, colitis, colon polyps and even cancer—are food related and require people to avoid specific foods to avoid severe pain, missing work or going to the hospital.

Heart Conditions

Diet is an important risk factor in avoiding and possibly reversing heart diseases. Some medications for heart disease do not interact well with specific foods and can decrease the effectiveness and/or cause adverse effects—high blood pressure, heart failure and/or strokes. If an employee lets you know that they must avoid specific foods, they may be doing for an invisible medical disability.

These are just a few examples of the many diseases, conditions, dysfunctions, and alternative ways of experiencing the world that fall under the classification of invisible disabilities. Most who understand the world of invisible disabilities understand that the existence of ‘normal’ is an illusion.

The disability of extremely high importance is food allergies, food intolerances and other medically-necessary diets, like celiac disease. Yes, these are protected under the ADA. And because they don’t require an assistive device, like a wheelchair, cane, glasses, or hearing aid, food allergies and intolerances are an invisible disability.

In most cases, participating in meetings and events at work or while traveling for work makes it close to impossible to completely avoid allergens, either because they can’t avoid the ingredient or they can’t control for cross-contamination.

When this discomfort or worse, life-threatening dangers, are ignored by those hosting meetings in the office, you are not only ignoring your duty of care, you are endangering people with an invisible disability.

Food allergies, celiac disease, heart disease and diabetes are not choices your employees make. They are invisible diseases—and disabilities—that require managing their diet very closely and specifically so they can maintain their health, their life and their job.

As founder and chief connecting officer of thrive!, Tracy Stuckrath helps organizations worldwide understand how food and beverage (F&B) affects risk, employee/guest experience, company culture and the bottom line. As a speaker, consultant, author and event planner, she is passionate about safe and inclusive F&B that satisfies everyone’s needs. She has presented to audiences on five continents and believes that food and beverage provide a powerful opportunity to engage audiences on multiple levels. For more information about Tracy, please visit: www.thrivemeetings.com.