Editor’s note: Tracy Stuckrath is founder and chief connecting officer of thrive!, Atlanta.  

It’s the first day of your company’s annual sale meeting for 25 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 contains gluten. It will just be iceberg lettuce and a few tomatoes for lunch for you.

Invisible womanYou feel very left out, overlooked and 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? People with celiac disease, diabetes and/or food allergies have the same protections afforded by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as others with disabilities.

The ADA of 1990 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, 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 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 healthy meal for diabetics 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. 
  • Digestive disorders: Disorders of the digestive system which cause a person’s gastrointestinal 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 so 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.

Gluten Free sign

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. Food allergies, celiac disease, heart disease and diabetes are not choices employees make.

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.