Must Gluten-free Be Free? What You Should Know About Celiac Disease and the ADA
Restaurants nationwide are beginning to offer gluten-free alternatives to regular menu items. This is welcome news to those long suffering from celiac disease, a chronic and serious immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness cites a statistic that one out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease. While that number seems small, that means that a busy restaurant will likely encounter at least one customer with celiac disease every few days at the least, and quite often daily. Many restaurants that do provide gluten-free options, however, charge an added fee for the dish. This raises a few important topics of note for those with celiac disease – whether celiac disease is a “disability” that requires accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), whether a restaurant must provide a gluten-free dish as an accommodation, and finally, whether it may charge an added fee for the accommodation.
Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations. Restaurants open to the public fall squarely within this rule, for instance. A disability under the ADA is any mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. As to whether celiac disease is considered a disability for ADA purposes, the Justice Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the department in charge of enforcing Title III of the ADA, has already answered in the affirmative. In 2012, the DOJ entered into a settlement with Lesley University, a college in Cambridge, MA that requires the college’s meal plan to provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options.