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From the community – January 2017

This month, read a story from a dad of a child with food allergies who shares how you can spread allergy-awareness in your everyday life. We would love to hear from you too! Share your stories with us at info@foodallergycanada.ca.

Subtle steps: How you can spread allergy-awareness in your everyday life

Contributed by Marc Bhalla

Marc and his daughter
Marc and his daughter

When we first learned that my daughter had an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts, I wanted to do all that I could to help her. At first, this included an impossible vision of eradicating peanuts from the world. While my family’s efforts to inform and educate friends and family to help us establish a safer environment for her proved to be a more effective strategy, two challenging issues remain:

  1. As my daughter is now on the verge of entering her teen years, it is less likely that she is going to want to alert the world to her allergy. While she is an aspiring actor who does not mind the spotlight, no one can be expected to always want to stand out as different, or to require that others go to any trouble to include them.
  1. Most anaphylactic reactions do not occur intentionally. It is not likely that my daughter will ever wonder what a Snickers bar tastes like; rather, it is unexpected cross-contamination that poses the biggest risk. To that end, it is an unfortunate truth that many who view themselves as aware, and who want to accommodate food allergies, do not necessarily understand them and, as a result, pose a risk. Here, the old sayings about the dangers of a little knowledge or having the best of intentions come to mind. The reality is that not everyone is aware that items that don’t contain obvious peanuts — such as lollipops — can be prepared in facilities where the allergen is stored or processed, and pose a cross-contamination risk. Similarly, not everyone realizes that everyday household items — such as ant traps — contain peanuts.

In my view, the best way to address these challenges are, firstly, to do my part to raise a confident self-advocate. Social pressures are real, and they are part of the social environment, so it is better to work with them to ensure that my daughter can be both safe and comfortable. After all, I cannot always be there, nor will my daughter always want me to be there as she becomes a teenager. Additionally, I can do my part to raise the awareness of those around me, particularly as society is increasingly evolving from expecting everyone to conform to a place where individual differences are accommodated, or even celebrated.

When it comes to raising awareness, I support and applaud the efforts of Food Allergy Canada to educate society as to the realities of managing and accommodating food allergies; however, I work as a mediator whose practice is focused on condominium conflict management. What can I do?

The captive audiences that my day job and volunteer work have made possible lead me to spread allergy awareness whenever I can. I share my experience in hope that others within the food allergy community might also be inspired to look for opportunities to educate others around them, however subtly.

As part of my volunteer work with the Toronto & Area Chapter of the Canadian Condominium Institute (CCI), I serve as editor of the quarterly Condovoice magazine. While I have had some fun in my regular Editor’s Note section since taking on this role in December 2014, sneaking in pop culture references that make our younger readers smile, my note in the Summer 2016 issue (http://bit.ly/CVEditorNote) included a comment on the “olden days” and a reference to it being fine, back in the day, to bring peanut butter sandwiches to school. I followed this with concluding remarks about society being smarter and safer today. While I did not expect to change the world by including a point about peanut butter not being welcome in today’s schools, I did hope to at least remind readers about this – a point that wasn’t directly related to the focus of my key message, but a reminder nonetheless.

In terms of my mediation practice, this past summer, I was honoured with a senior designation. As part of the recognition that came with this, I felt it appropriate to give back to the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) community by sharing insights I have gathered with colleagues and students.

So, I contributed an article of general interest to mediators across fields to the Fall 2016 issue of ADR Update entitled “The Mediator’s New Clothes(http://bit.ly/mediatorsnewclothes). In my article, I drew upon my interest in fashion to share my belief that there is value in mediators thinking about and dressing in a manner that is most comfortable for their clients (i.e., a suit may be appropriate in some circumstances, less formal outfits in others). In sharing this point about comfort, I added a reference to the practice of having food available at mediation sessions — pointing out the impact that the presence of food has upon at-risk individuals with food allergies, especially if their allergy is anaphylactic.

While I always ask my clients about food allergies to ensure they are accommodated, my hope in including this point in my article was to give other mediators something to think about aside from my main message about clothing selection. If just one mediator began to ask their clients about accommodating food allergies after reading my article, I would consider this effort a success.

I share these subtle messages whenever opportunities present themselves. In speaking about my recent mediation article in an interview for the upcoming Condo Web Show on YouTube, I focused on my point about the presence of food and its impact when food allergens are present, in the hope that this message would reach a broader audience. In addition, while teaching a condominium conflict resolution course in early 2016 for the Golden Horseshoe Chapter of CCI, I shared a personal example to illustrate the difference between one’s intentions and the impact of one’s actions in the context of conflict management. Here, I told the story of a well-meaning teacher giving my daughter an unsafe treat and of my daughter returning home to tell us that her teacher was trying to kill her.

Returning to my initial reaction when my daughter’s peanut allergy was diagnosed — that is, my desire to rid the world of peanuts — I have come to realize that a smaller-scale mindset can be even more effective. Of course, I continue to support direct efforts to enlighten, such as those led by Alex Tagliani and other heroes in the allergy community. However, I can also contribute directly by finding small ways to share allergy-awareness and promote understanding of the reality of living with a food allergy. I encourage you to think about the opportunities that exist in your life to consider doing the same.

Marc Bhalla is a proud father.  He works as a mediator and serves as the Second Vice President of the Toronto & Area Chapter of the Canadian Condominium Institute.