What does “Reasonable Accommodations” mean?

If you have a 504 Plan for your child’s food allergies at your child’s school, you have no doubt come across the term ‘reasonable accommodations.’ It’s part of the language of the American with Disabilities Act. Trying to come to an agreement of what is reasonable to keep our children with food allergies safe can be like speaking two different languages with some school administrators. Yet, when it works it ends up more like a beautiful symphony when all parties can agree on what is necessary to keep a child with food allergies safe.

Most children with food allergies can be accommodated using existing guidelines for schools that the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) provides on their website here. Our school district has expanded those guidelines with the assistance of a Food Allergy Task Force we created in our district. Those guidelines are available here. There are students, like my son, who have more extensive needs for safety where more accommodations are needed. We have these accommodations in writing in the form of a 504 Plan.

So how do you go about being a reasonable parent when you know the severity levels of your child’s food allergies and past reactions? When Morgan started school he had not experienced a significant allergic reaction that required the use of his EpiPen. He’d had a few peanut contact reactions and had reacted to numerous environmental issues such as pollens and pets. He had also had reactions to vaccinations, and he had RAST and skin prick tests that indicated that he had numerous food allergies. He hadn’t actually ingested many of the foods where he showed a high positive IgE, so we were confused as to which foods we needed to be concerned about in the classroom.

We spoke to our allergist to determine what we needed to request for accommodations for Morgan to safely attend elementary school. She suggested an allergen-free classroom and an allergen-free zone in the lunchroom in addition to hand washing after lunch. Our allergist wrote a letter to the school district as a starting point for what was needed. Then, the 504 Plan was created with the assistance of the 504 Coordinator for the school district, the school counselor, and the school Principal. This all occurred in the Spring prior to Morgan starting kindergarten. Morgan was the first student with food allergies for whom the district had provided a 504 Plan, so we were all trying to foresee where potential issues could arise.

We found that asking for only what Morgan needed to stay safe was the place to start. We didn’t request to have a peanut-free school, because that wasn’t going to address Morgan’s other severe allergies – tree nuts, sesame, fish and shellfish. We wanted an allergy-aware school. We didn’t think a peanut-free school was necessary based upon Morgan’s past history of having had no inhalant reactions around peanuts. Remember – an accommodation is only as good as its ability to be enforced. Additionally, we wanted to ask for only as much as Morgan needed to remain safe and nothing more. Thankfully, in 12 years (of preschool, elementary, middle and high school) we’ve never had to escalate any additional accommodations.

We didn’t ask that the cafeteria cease serving peanut butter products because we didn’t plan on Morgan eating a ‘hot lunch’ from the cafeteria. From my understanding, it is required by Federal law that a school must provide a safe meal for a child with food allergies. This was offered to us, and we politely declined. We felt like we had enough potential issues in educating the school staff about food allergies in classrooms. Taking on educating the cafeteria workers also was too much. Morgan always brought his food from home, whether it was for lunch or for classroom snacks. He continues that to this day in high school. This added a level of comfort, control and safety for him and it was one less accommodation that required management. He always sat in an allergen-free zone in the cafeteria during elementary school. Most of his friends wanted to sit next to him as well, and they respected the allergen-free table. Some children truly desire to eat lunch made in the cafeteria. If this is the case for your child, you might want to pursue this accommodation.

We didn’t ask that all classrooms be allergen-free. We only wanted the classrooms that Morgan was attending to be allergen-free. Therefore, that included the art room, gym, library, and music room in addition to his classroom. The other kindergarten classroom, at that time, still allowed all of Morgan’s allergens to be brought into the classroom. Morgan’s teacher knew that her class would never travel around to another classroom in the school, and that seemed to work out well.

We did ask that children wash their hands after eating lunch to ensure that no allergens traveled out to the playground during elementary school. We asked that the school principal, with the school nurse, send out a letter to the parents of students in Morgan’s class about the need for safe foods in the classroom. This letter didn’t identify Morgan by name, but just stated that “there is a student in the class with severe food allergies.” Students quickly figured out who this student was, and they were more than compassionate and wanted to keep Morgan safe.

The school included food allergies in various lessons about ‘student differences.’ Morgan’s elementary school had dozens of children along the autism spectrum mainstreamed in classes, so students had participated in classroom discussions about this condition. Adding discussions about food allergies, diabetes and other medical issues fell into the lesson easily. Several parents told me that their child came home wishing they were “special” too!

The main thing we’ve learned about ‘reasonable accommodations’ is that it’s a negotiable term. Every class offered in middle school and high school is not going to be safe for Morgan – especially the classes that involved cooking or involved food to increase cultural awareness. We could have raised an issue about this, but it was far more important to us for Morgan to have his English, Math, Science and Social Studies classes to be safe. We want for our son to understand that not everything in this world is going to be changed for him to allow his participation.

We have worked within the school system to increase education and awareness of food allergies and this has done more to create a new standard of ‘reasonable accommodations.’ In subsequent years, Morgan’s elementary school did cease serving peanut products in the cafeteria because of the large number of students with peanut allergies. The school also now allows no peanut products or pets in any classroom.

Good communication with school administrators is the keystone in the arch you are building. Modeling a balanced approach for our son allows him today to communicate his needs in a positive way. He’s not anxious about his food allergies because he knows that his safety is of utmost concern to school officials, and that if a situation arises he can speak with an adult immediately. Regardless, Morgan has also championed his own ability to be safe as well.

Ultimately, we parents are modeling how to manage food allergies for our children. We want our son to have a realistic view of what accommodations he needs to participate in life’s activities. He’s finding that he can do a lot of amazing things with no allergic reactions and very few accommodations necessary.

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