In May of 2017 an 11-year old boy (identified as “J.D.”) with severe gluten intolerance went on a school trip to Colonial Williamsburg and brought along his own gluten-free lunch. The family had several previous experiences with facilities that claimed to be able to provide gluten-free meals, but which resulted in J.D.’s experiencing significant symptoms. This led J.D.’s parents to resolve to regularly prepare his food to ensure that he could participate as much as possible in school parties, celebrations, and meals. But on this occasion at Colonial Williamsburg J.D. was not allowed by the facility to eat his own food inside their restaurant. The facility stated it would provide a gluten-free meal, but J.D. did not trust the restaurant to safely prepare his food. So, he ate outside, segregated from his classmates and the experience they were having.
J.D.’s family sued the Colonial Willamsburg Foundation for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA directs businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities. In 2008 the ADA was amended to include in the definition of disability: “…physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities…” Eating is one such “major life activity.”
The first ruling in this case was issued in June of 2018 in favor of Colonial Williamsburg, finding that the boy had not been discriminated against. The family appealed this lower-court decision, however, and on May 31, 2019, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that it was reasonable for J.D. to request that the restaurant allow him to eat his own food on their premises. It was noted that even though the restaurant prepares gluten-free meals that may accommodate most people with a gluten intolerance, there are significant questions in this case about whether the accommodation sufficiently accounted for J.D.’s disability. The case will now go to trial.