Food allergies are frightening, not funny

Last night, my son was reading a book that was required summer reading for 6th grade. This book was published over 30 years ago. When he got to a sentence that used the word “retard,” he stopped and innocently asked, “Mom, what does that word mean?”

At first, I was shocked that he did not know the meaning, but as I thought about it more, I realized this term was no longer an acceptable descriptor in society. He simply had never heard someone use the term.

When I grew up, I vividly remember people would joke and use the phrase. This was considered the normal slang, and common in everyday conversation. Today, my children would never use such callous language. Nowadays using the word is socially unacceptable, a taboo.

A comedian on HBO last Saturday night delivered what I can only call vicious jokes about people with peanut allergies on planes. On the one hand, I understand that much of a comedian’s role is to push social boundaries. In many cases, comedians use offensive discourse to force us, the audience, to look inside ourselves and hopefully start the conversation

Many in the food allergy community believe that responding to such negativity or expressing extreme distress in response to such skits encourages comedians with such dialogue. Silence does not work. Dismissing this as “only comedy” normalizes this abuse.

Comedians may or may not be ignorant, but if audiences, and society for that matter, stop and think and ask ourselves: Is it really so funny when humor is hurtful? By dismissing these comments as funny, the world will never begin to understand the danger of food allergies and how food allergies affect peoples’ lives.

If we do not raise objections to this kind of comedy, we are teaching those around us that food allergies can be funny. It is then no surprise why kids are anxious, embarrassed, and bullied due food allergies. When we make light of anaphylaxis, we perpetuate the misleading stigma regarding food allergies.

Sadly, many people find his words funny because they believe flying with a peanut allergy is humorous. The fact that a serious food allergy on a plane is considered a subject of hilarity demonstrates a societal disconnect. Would people easily laugh if the jokes were about someone with a visible disability? I would hope not!

I am fully cognizant that voicing my objection will not change everyone’s opinion. For those that do not understand or have never considered the severity of food allergies, I hope that this will stimulate ideas and conversation. Perhaps this comedian did not even realize the cruel and abusive words he inflicted on members of his audience. His punchline was repugnant and ignores the history and facts surrounding food allergies.

This is not something we can joke about and pretend that this is an issue from the past; people today live with severe allergies and undergo disconcerting situations every day. We need to capitalize on this opportunity and begin rational discussions about how flying with a food allergy is not funny and, in fact, downright frightening to many.

As a food allergy advocate concentrating on flying with food allergies, I have collected many anecdotal reports of families being kicked off flights for asking for an announcement, mocked by flight attendants, and ridiculed by other passengers. There still are no federal guidelines to protect food allergic airline passengers. Important decisions concerning how to assist food allergic passengers are inconsistent, and that is not something persons with food allergies can afford.

How a food allergic passenger is treated in the air is often dependent on both the mood and education of a flight crew concerning food allergies. The fact that the food allergy protections on planes do not exist in a dependable capacity make comedian jokes even more somber.

When discussing the HBO comedy special on my Facebook page, one comment stood out to me. It came from food allergy mom and powerhouse disability rights attorney Mary Vargas.  She stated, “We have so much work to do in educating those around us. In objecting to this kind of ‘comedy,’ we are educating and having important dialogue. We are saying that there is a third rail that isn’t funny for our community. While we may not be able to educate everyone, it is my experience that we can educate many who have the heart to care but just haven’t been asked.”

I also believe by educating the greater public on the potential severity of food allergies, we will reach a point where it will be taboo to make these kinds of “jokes” publicly. The sentence my son read aloud to me was once considered the norm and now is just appalling terminology in society. I hope for a day that it is simply unacceptable to joke about food allergies.

Lianne Mandelbaum is founder, the No Nut Traveler and can be reached on Twitter @nonuttraveler.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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