The headlines were horrifying. Four people brutally beat an 18 year old disabled man. The perpetrators, the bullies, were not just content on harming him physically. The brutality was broadcast on social media. This gave viewers a front row, up close and personal seat to watch a human being be humiliated for sport. The three 18 year-old “kids” and a 24 year-old mother of two harmed another human simply for entertainment.
My heart sank. This touched a part of my soul, so deeply. I counted shake it for days. I should hope none of us could. It hit so close to home. My nephew has emotional and learning disabilities. It tore me to pieces thinking someone could take advantage of him this way. One of my close friends has a step-son with Prader Willi Syndrome and cognitive difficulties. It only imagined the horror in her heart, the fearful though that someone could harm her son because he was different.
Then my mind thought of the more than 5 million kids in our country living with food allergies. There is a major issue of food allergy bullying in the United States. Did you know a third of them, almost 2 million children, experience harassment every year because they have a food allergy? Others taunt, threat, harass and ostracize these children because their bodies perceive food as a threat. Because the physical reaction is so serious, food allergies qualify as a disability.
Think that’s a stretch? Not really. A disability is defined as “physical or mental issue that seriously limits one or more major life activities.” When you have a peanut allergy and its presence affects your ability to breathe, I’d say that limits a major life activity. Celiac Disease is considered one as well. When consuming gluten can affect your mental status, your hormone and nutrient levels, that is definitely a limit to daily function. Not to mention being able to go a day without constantly being on a toilet, it affects being able to hold down a job, etc.
When I first heard of food allergy bullying, I imagined it had to be rare. How could anyone do such a thing? To this day, I’m still affected by the story of Eleanor Garrow’s son, which I read in 2013 in Gluten Free and More Magazine. Her son, who has a peanut allergy, was attacked by another child and intentionally smeared with peanut butter. This could have been a deadly experience. Per the article, he struggled emotionally for quite a while due to that abuse.
Sadly, it’s not just kids that are the perpetrators of food allergy bullying. There are stories of parents of non-allergic kids threatening to coat the backpack of child with their deadly allergy. In another story, a parent encouraged their child to walk down the hall, smearing peanut butter on the walls, after the school declared themselves to a peanut-free zone. These types of actions show exactly why the children in our schools are harassing one another. Adults are not immune to these threats either. A young woman with Celiac Disease shared in a Facebook group that her “friends” retaliated against her by covering her car and property in wheat flour. And of course, those of us with Celiac Disease have recently been the topic of jokes in the entertainment industry. It has all added to the growing lack of compassion for those with food intolerances.
What can we do to turn the tide? How do we stop bullying and grow compassion about the issue of food allergy bullying?
4 Things You Can Do to Help Counteract Food Allergy Bullying
- Grow Awareness of Food Allergy Bullying
First we should start by explaining how serious food allergies are. These videos created by Ruchi Gupta explain the issues by each school level. I recently spoke with a middle school assistant principal while subbing one day. Her awareness of food allergy bullying was minimal. Growing awareness about the problem is a huge step. FARE has created a PSA that can be shown on television and in schools. It’s also important to train teachers how to address the issue appropriately. Sometimes teachers use words to address why certain foods are not allowed in a classroom that actually increase the possibility of bullying.
- Convince Children to Tell You When it Happens
Food allergy bullying doesn’t get much attention because children are afraid to speak up. They fear if they address the issue it will draw attention to themselves or make the bullies angry. However, the only way to ameliorate the situation is for your student to tell you. Constantly communicate with your child about how things are going. If they suddenly seem disinterested in school, this may be part of the reason why.
- Stand Up For One Another – Get a buddy
Many time the “positive” light in food allergy bullying stories is when a friend stood up for a food allergic child. Like in Charlotte’s story, having a friend keep an eye on lunch box if they get up to use the bathroom can make a huge different. Standing up for one another also applies to us as adults. We need to be willing to “set others parents straight” when their speech can encourage misunderstandings or taking food allergies flippantly.
- Know Your Rights
Your child qualifies for a 504 plan, as food allergies are covered as a disability,. A 504 plan is a contract between parents and the school. It outlines how your child will be protected while at school.
As time goes by, it seems that society gets uglier and uglier. The greatest chance we have to make a positive change in it is to spread awareness and foster compassion. People pick on those that they feel are weaker. Let’s show them that we’re stronger….together.
Have you or your child been the victim of food allergy bullying? How have you handled the situation? Please share your strategies below so we can help each other.