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How To Be An Allergy Ally

As Food Allergy & Asthma Awareness Month comes to an end, I wanted to shine a light on a topic that came up for me recently—what does it mean to be an ally to those with allergies? Below, I outline what being an allergy ally means and provide five actionable ways to start being one today.

This May, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) did an awesome showcase of highlighting people in and outside of the food allergy community who were nominated to be a #AllergyAlly. This showcase was to shine lights on people who make a difference in the lives of those with food allergies and to promote food allergy awareness (check it out here!). I was honored to be featured in this showcase, but the whole thing got me thinking about what being an allergy ally really means.

Being an ally, defined simply, means supporting the cause of a marginalized group that you may or may not be a part of. People with disabilities are a large marginalized group in the United States as nearly 1 in 4 adults has a disability. Food allergies are a part of this staggering number. Yes, you heard me correctly! Anaphylactic food allergies are a disability. According to the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has an impairment that seriously limits one or more major life activities. Food allergies, and in particular anaphylactic ones, fall into this category under the ADA and Section 504. Although food allergies are recognized legally as a disability, many of us in the food allergy community can attest to the fact that we still often face barriers to accessing safe food, discrimination, unequal treatment in public settings, and inequitable access to care. For myself, I can think of hundreds of occurrences over the span of my life where I have been put in an unsafe situation at school, work, or another public setting with my allergens despite advocating for myself prior. We are constantly facing misinformation and stereotyping largely due to misrepresentations of what severe food allergies truly are in the media. We need allies outside of the community to join us in the fight to spread awareness and food allergy education to cultivate safer spaces and more equitable treatment.

When looking through all of the FARE posts of allergy allies, a few key traits jumped out at me. Regardless of age or whether the person had an allergy or not, all of these allergy allies were open to listening to the experiences of those with food allergies, empathetic towards their struggles, and took action to make a difference, whether it was on an individual or large scale. These traits of openness, empathy, and action fall in line with the existing literature on disability allyship.

Graphic by Danielle Coke

Now if you’re still confused or wondering, “How do I start being an allergy ally today?” Don’t worry, I got you. Here are five steps you can take to be an allergy ally and encourage others to as well.

1. Don't Assume, Ask

It is easy to assume that everyone you are in contact with on a daily basis does not have any food allergies, especially if you do not have one yourself. But with 32 million people having food allergies in the United States alone, it is important to not assume, especially if you are in a situation where food is involved. If you are in charge of planning a work lunch or dinner, a simple check-in message asking if anyone has food allergies or dietary restrictions can go a long way. Additionally, if you're hosting a potluck or any sort of gathering, it's important to check in with your guests about allergies to make sure the space can be as safe as possible for them. Opening that line of communication and showing that you care about someone's safety and wellbeing is so huge for those of us with allergies. I know for myself, I never forget when someone makes me feel cared for and like my allergies are not a burden or inconvenience to them.

2. Listen & Learn

Food allergies are complex and unique! Even as someone who has lived with them my whole life, I am constantly learning new things about different people's experiences with them on social media. Once you learn that someone has food allergies, ask them about it if they feel comfortable. Saying something like, "I'd love to learn more about what you're allergic to and what I can do to keep you safe if you're comfortable sharing" is a wonderful way to open up a conversation about their allergies. Going about it with the intent to learn so that you can help the other person feel safe and comfortable will allow the person with allergies to share their experience more freely. Many of us with food allergies are used to getting bombarded with questions when someone first finds out that we have an allergy, so a simple "if you're comfortable sharing" can create a foundation of trust and understanding. Additionally, emphasizing that you want to learn so that you can help them to be safe is a great way to be an allergy ally.

3. Validate & Empathize

Living with food allergies is hard. Food allergies take a mental, emotional, financial, and physical toll on the people who have them and their caregivers. Giving people with allergies space to share their experiences with them and validating how challenging it can be does wonders. It allows us to feel heard, seen, and less alone in our struggles. If you ever get the urge to say, "I would die if I had your allergies" or anything along those lines, I encourage you to pause and rephrase. Although it may be coming from a good place, negative statements like that are often more alienating and frustrating for those with food allergies than they are helpful. Instead something like, "It sounds like it must be really exhausting to have to constantly worry about your allergens. Anyone in your shoes would be frustrated and tired of being so on guard all the time. I'm really sorry you have to go through this" comes across as validating and empathetic. We are not asking for solutions or toxic positivity, but simply someone to sit with us in our struggles.

4. Speak Up Against Misinformation and Injustice

If you hear someone making an insensitive joke about food allergies or spreading misinformation, I strongly encourage you to speak up as long as it does not compromise your safety. Using a kind yet firm tone, you can point out the misinformation or joke you heard, why it was untrue or hurtful, and address why it is important to spread food allergy education and awareness. Reminding people that food allergies are severe medical conditions that cause hundreds of deaths in the United States alone each year is often enough to help people understand how serious they are.

5. Identify Ways To Make Your Workplace, School, or Community More Inclusive

Whether it's at work, school, your place of worship, or in the broader community, there are always ways we can be more inclusive especially when it comes to food allergies. Making sure that these places are equipped with epinephrine auto-injectors and that staff are properly trained on how to administer them is one way to make a setting more inclusive. Other ideas include having top 9 allergen-free snacks available, screening attendees of events that involve food of their allergies beforehand, and advocating for food allergy policies at the local, state, or federal level. Whether it is writing to your local Parks department about putting up signs at local playgrounds that state what food allergies are and ask parents to keep food off the playgrounds, having your school workplace participate in a food allergy training or webinar, or lobbying for state bills that require daycares to have epinephrine auto-injectors and proper training, there are so many steps you can take to be more inclusive.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are already an allergy or disability ally. Congrats, you are doing amazing! But, I encourage you to share this information with people you know and continue to make a difference outside of the food allergy community. Whether it is advocating for better food allergy policies and protocols in your community or simply explaining the difference between an allergy and an intolerance to someone, you will make a difference. The more that people who have no experience or exposure to allergies are educated about the severity of allergies and are open to listening to us, the more we can make this world a safer place for people with anaphylactic food allergies.

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