Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The food allergy accommodations

http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/01/13/school-faces-human-rights-complaint-over-students-egg-dairy-allergy/This one's a "mommy post" dear readers, so brace yourselves. I've talked about pediatric food allergies in a past post, but I recently ran across an article from The National Post (a Canadian newspaper) by Sarah Boesveld that has inspired me to write another. The full article can be found here if any of you are interested. The summary is this: a mother of a food-allergic child (shown on the right) in Hamilton, Ontario is presently suing her daughter's school because she feels they have not made sufficient accommodations in dealing with her daughter's egg and dairy allergies.

The article is a little over a week old now, and I've found myself contemplating this family's situation since I first read about it, feeling compelled to write something but trying to feel out what the tone should be. Discussions about allergies and what should be done, and to what extent, can get quite heated at times. Being an allergy mom myself, I always find that I sympathize with the other allergy parents more than I do the institutions (usually schools). Both of our sons have food allergies, and the oldest one is, like the little girl in the article, allergic to eggs and dairy. Having read about this family and their lawsuit and the circumstances which brought it about, I count my blessings. I do! I count them and then I start again. Our son is in kindergarten and he is lucky enough to be attending a school which has been willing to listen and to make the necessary accommodations since the very beginning of the school year. And I mean really -listen-, not just nod politely at me and then brush off my concerns.

1. The office staff:
I left a bottle of our son's allergy medication with them as well as an action plan with detailed instructions. I really felt like they took me seriously and I felt like they were capable AND willing to follow the plan should it become necessary.

2. The food services manager:
This lady met with me personally on the first day of school to discuss my concerns about school-provided lunches. She then went out of her way to check ingredients in certain foods to find out if they would be safe for my son to eat. Some were, some turned out to not be much to her surprise. She also let me inspect the snack cart to see what safe options were there. Ultimately, we decided together, based on my son's needs and dietary restrictions, that I would provide him with a lunch and snacks from home. That he would only eat what I sent, and that the school would not provide him with any non-approved food. Interestingly enough, the food services manager has a child with a banana allergy.

3. The classroom teacher:
Someone I also had a discussion with on the first day of school. We agreed that for classroom parties, I would just be the mom who provided the cupcakes. Simple as that. She also agreed to keep a bag of safe chocolate on hand (that I provided for her) for our son for when classmates came in with birthday treats. And finally, she sends me emails well in advance of her doing any food-related activities at school. For example: the class made mini English muffin pizzas and with plenty of advanced warning, I was able to send to school the necessary ingredients for our son to have a safe pizza. Further, when the teacher showed the Polar Express right before Christmas break and was serving hot chocolate, she let me know a few days in advance so that I could again send in safe ingredients.

These are my blessings, 1, 2, 3. I am so thankful that this is the situation at our son's school. Because I know how bad it can get. The article I'm referencing sounds extreme, and the truth is, food allergy awareness is often like this. No one pays attention until circumstances get really bad, at which point it makes the news and then poor parent comes across looking overprotective, to put it mildly. I scrolled down and read some of the comments too, and I was dismayed, but not all that shocked, to see the poor mother villainized. This situation is not unique either. I personally know of a mother, a friend, one whose son is a good friend to my own. Her boy goes to a preschool program in a different school in another district, and the situation she found herself in was appalling. Not all that different from the one discussed in the article from The National Post except for that my friend was able to come to a reasonable agreement with the school.

But the push-back she received from her son's classroom teacher and the aide... Okay, yes the teacher may have 15 students, but between her and her aide, I think they can find the time for one boy to wash his hands upon returning to the classroom from the gym. That was IT, that was all my friend wanted. Not for the school to start banning foods, just for her boy to be allowed to wash his hands upon return any time the class left their room. And the ignorance she encountered in the school nurse... Okay, not everyone is an expert on allergies, but a nurse who deals with children in schools should know better than to suggest that hand sanitizer is acceptable for removing allergens from hands, it -needs- to be soap and water; hand sanitizer removes germs, that's it.

As it happened, when my friend told me about her situation, I had just read an article from Allergic Living written by doctor and allergist Scott Sicherer that addressed the issue of hand sanitizers and allergens. I sent the link to my friend and she printed it out in quadruplicate. She gave copies to the teacher & aide, to the nurse, to the principal, and to the superintendent because by then that's how far things had gotten; the administration had become involved.
The principal was on her side and insisted that the teacher let the little boy wash his hands. Interestingly enough, the principal has a child with multiple food allergies. Truthfully, most food allergy parents aren't asking for the moon. They are asking for acceptable and reasonable accommodations. In many places, allergies are covered under "persons with disabilities". The difference is that food allergies are invisible until the worst happens and a reaction occurs, so a lot people feel as though they can ignore them or choose to believe they aren't there at all. That's fallacy.

Best advice: Take food allergies seriously because they are real. If you have the luxury of choosing not to believe that they are, or that they don't need to be accommodated, then be grateful for that ignorance because it means you've never seen a reaction and what that can do a child.

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