By Guest Blogger Angela Fuller
Everyone, in one way or another, wants to be included, and as a society we encourage each other to be nice and include others. It sounds simple, right? However, for kids with food allergies, being included requires more than simply finding friends with similar interests, making the team or getting the lead in the school play. It also often requires becoming an educator—of their friends and sometimes of their friends’ parents.
Parents of food allergic kids teach them to, from a young age, recite their allergies; recognize allergens; politely decline food from others; ask about ingredients, read labels; wash their hands thoroughly;, keep their hands off their eyes, noses and mouths; recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction; and administer epinephrine. But, it’s not enough. Ensuring the inclusion of children with food allergies requires creating safe environment. And that can’t be done without the help of others.
If you ask most parents if it would be OK to knowingly put a child in danger or exclude him or her based on a disability, they would say no. Of course, no one would find it acceptable to leave a child with a physical disability indoors while her peers went outside to play because no one wanted to ensure a safe path to the playground. And no one would look at a child in a wheelchair and say, “Good luck navigating the broken sidewalk. If you want to join us, you’ll need to figure it out yourself.”
But for some reason, it is socially acceptable to expect food allergic kids to bear the sole responsibility for managing an unsafe environment or to be excluded, even though food allergy is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s one thing to say all children should be included, but it’s another to make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary precautions to make it happen.
Inclusion is tricky. Inclusion means change. And, change can be uncomfortable and even frightening. Children with food allergies have to change what they eat, how they eat, where they go, what they touch, whom they kiss, whose hand they hold, where they sit, how they get a drink of water, where they keep their lunchbox, how they scratch their nose. The list goes on. In general, kids are open to change and food allergy kids are experts at it. Getting kids to embrace change is not the challenge. It’s we adults who tend to resist it. We are overwhelmed, overworked, exhausted, barely keeping up with what we currently have on our plates, and the thought of someone imposing change to a life we are hanging on to by a thread can just seem unfair; change is inconvenient.
Inclusion often comes up in the classroom with regard to what type of food can be brought in for snack, treats for celebrations or classroom protocols. In order for food allergic kids to be included, allergenic foods sometimes need to be removed from the classroom. Craft supplies must be altered, handwashing protocols instated or seating charts altered. The question isn’t whether all the children should be included. The question really becomes, “how inconvenienced is a person willing to be in order to ensure inclusion?” Are you willing to send SunButter instead of peanut butter, make sure your child washes his hands before entering the classroom, forgo cupcakes at school on his birthday?
I have found that people who resist these more inclusive behaviors aren’t against inclusion. Many of them simply fear change, and inclusion equals change. So what can you as a parent do? Will you set the example for your kids that change, because it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, should be resisted? Or will you teach by your example that change creates space for inspiration? You can inspire your children to be compassionate, encourage a sense of community responsibility and see change as an opportunity to grow and explore new things. But it has to start with you. You have to model this for your children.
Is a sandwich really more important than a child’s life? Is it really about the sandwich? Or is it more about maintaining old habits and behaviors? Building new, more inclusive habits and behaviors is work, but it can be adventurous and enriching work. Encourage your child to try something new, find new ways to celebrate birthdays and holidays, start new traditions, put others’ needs before hers and lead others to do the same. Aren’t these all great life lessons anyway? Shouldn’t all these things be part of a child’s education? What a simple way to teach such valuable character traits, through a sandwich.
So, it really boils down to this: For you, does inclusion mean inconvenience or inspiration?
*Angela Fuller is the Founder and President of Food Allergy Families of the Triad