For decades now, the Social Security Administration has been constantly evolving its definition, as well as its list, of disabilities that qualify a person for benefits. This also goes hand in hand with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which gains much of its clout from the list the SSA provides.
But recent lawsuits involving food allergies have many people throughout the nation, including many here in Illinois, questioning what the definition of a disability is and how changes in society could be redrawing the perceived lines of what a disability.
In general use, a disability is defined as anything that prevents a person from doing something; more specifically, it's your body that has disabled you. Or at least that used to be the way of thinking, but with society's ever-changing views of the world, newer thinking is looking at a disability as how the environment around you is preventing you from doing something.
Dr. Dan O'Connor from the Johns Hopkins' Berman Institute of Bioethics uses the example of a person who has lost their ability to use their legs and is confined to a wheelchair. Although the person in the wheelchair is considered disabled, an environment full of stairs is what is disabling the person because they no longer have full mobility. This new view of what a disability is has now led some to file lawsuits because of food allergies.
Such was the case for some university students in Massachusetts who sued their school because the university forced them to purchase a meal plan for an eating facility that did not offer gluten-free options. The students, who all suffered from celiac disease, argued that this was a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act; an argument the Department of Justice agreed with.
As the SSA continues to add more illnesses and diseases to the list of applicable disabilities, without notifying the public, they leave themselves and others open to unwanted legal actions that could hurt a person or establishment more than just financially. And without a changed definition, experts say there will likely be more complicated litigation in the future.
Source: Forbes, "What's a Disability? Some Push for the Lines to Be Redrawn," Alice G. Walton, Jan. 25, 2013
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