If you think I talk about Food Allergies all the time here, imagine how my friends feel! A friend from law school, Ali, wrote to me that though her daughter doesn’t deal with food allergies, she saw this policy on Amtrak’s website and was disturbed that a food allergic minor would not be permitted to ride Amtrak alone while one without food allergies might be allowed to do so.
The unaccompanied child may not have any life-threatening food allergies.
I have written to Amtrak to inquire about this policy but have not yet received a response. If I do, I will be sure to update this post. The full policy, with the allergy reference highlighted, is below:
If I were to speculate, there’s a lot implied here. My mind first goes to the thought that food allergic children have to be more responsible and aware versus non-allergic children (source). On the other hand, the teen years are notorious for risk taking behavior (source). I am not sure that Amtrak is weighing either of these considerations in their policy, however. They could simply want to delegate responsibility for a minor with food allergies to the individual accompanying them. Or, to take it a step further, from reading their other statements regarding food service and nuts (source), they are taking the approach many of us have experienced where a restaurant or other location just turns a food allergic individual away without attempting basic accommodation. As I stated, though, this is speculation. Their automated system kept kicking me back to their dining policy and customer service e-mail has gone unnoticed thus far.
Most of all, I was not sure how to respond to my friend. She thought it was outrageous to have such a restriction. Here in Las Vegas we don’t really have this sort of transportation – is it common for a teen to ride a train unaccompanied in the United States? Does Amtrak require disclosure of allergies upon ticket purchase? To buy an unaccompanied minor ticket it seems that one has to call in and not use the online system at the outset. To interview a child at the station to determine the ability to ride alone (included in the above policy) but exclude from that determination whether they could adequately manage their own food allergies for the duration of travel seems to attach a strict liability concern for Amtrak. That is to say, is the act of a teen with food allergies traveling alone patently risky to the point where Amtrak cannot allow it – or such that they would point to the policy as a defense if something did happen to a teen with food allergies traveling alone? And what of allergies that present for the first time without prior warning? There is a push in many states already to move stock epinephrine beyond schools and onto public transportation and in restaurants (read more about Nevada’s efforts here).
The American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA for short) of 1990 established that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a) (2000). A disability under the ADA “means, with respect to an individual– a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). Arguably, food allergies, though something that can be mitigated through avoidance, impact the major life activity of eating and are covered by the ADA. Here, I’m sure the response by Amtrak would be that the person wanting to travel could do so, albeit accompanied. They’d try to look at the age restriction as the reason for a limitation and not at an outright discrimination based on allergy. It certainly bears more investigation/research into the current state of disability law in the United States. And of course none of this is legal advice or anything, I’m just wondering if this is simply a policy that has gone unnoticed or unchallenged. My area of practice as a Nevada attorney doesn’t run to this area of law, I deal largely with elder exploitation and guardianship day-to-day, but my interest is definitely piqued by issues such as these. (See also: my post about labeling)
My knee-jerk reaction would be that if, say, a 14 year old meets all other requirements Amtrak has for unaccompanied travel and also happens to have food allergies, I can’t see why they should not be allowed to travel alone. What are your thoughts? Does this strike you as a discriminatory policy? Is this a policy that protects the potential unaccompanied youth with food allergies or does the protection run to Amtrak alone? At what age would you be comfortable with your child, food allergic or not, traveling alone?