U of O refusing to offer food-free lectures, severely allergic student says

A University of Ottawa student with severe food allergies says she can’t attend classes because the school won’t accommodate her request for food-free lectures.

Shannon Kelly, 24, suffers from severe reactions to certain foods including peanuts, eggs, shellfish and soy. She claims her anaphylaxis can be triggered simply by smelling those foods.

To avoid a frightening trip to the hospital, Kelly has asked the university to ban all food in the classes she attends.

“I’m asking for this policy because if it isn’t in place my life is literally threatened,” said Kelly, a second-year psychology student. “I’ve been intubated multiple times. It’s not a joke.”

According to Food Allergy Canada, “odour alone has not been shown to cause an anaphylactic reaction.” However, Kelly said she is currently being tested for a rare syndrome that would better explain her unique physical response to particular foods.

“I’m not asking for this policy because I don’t like the smell of food,” she said. “I’m doing it because I need to stay alive.”

Conflicting accommodations

Kelly said her request hasn’t been a problem until recently, when one of her professors refused due in part to their own medical issue that requires them to eat while teaching.

“I contacted [the professor] … and said I completely understand medical conditions,” Kelly said. “[I asked], could we work together? Could maybe you notify me when you need to eat, or could you bring food that I’m not allergic to? And I was told no.”

CBC News has seen an email exchange between Kelly and the professor that supports Kelly’s story. CBC is not naming the professor for privacy reasons.

The professor did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview, but in an emailed statement the University of Ottawa said it makes “all reasonable efforts to accommodate students with special needs, including those related to food allergies.”

Kelly said she eventually transferred to another class, but the professor teaching that course also refused to ban food from the classroom.

Variety of accommodations on offer

The university said it can provide various accommodations, including access to class materials in advance, remote access to lectures, pre-approved alternative testing times and access to allergen-free rooms for exams.

According to Ottawa labour and disability lawyer Randy Slepchik, not all special requests for accommodation can be met — especially if it creates the legal standard of “undue hardship” on others.

“Undue hardship is considered in terms of the resources of the organization. Are they overwhelmingly taxed? Are [people] impacted in a way that’s fair to them? Or does it get to a point where it overwhelms them?” Slepchik asked.

“Just because there’s discrimination, it doesn’t mean there has to be a solution.”

Slepchik said when one person’s accommodation request interferes with another person’s rights and freedoms, a compromise should be made that takes everyone’s needs into account.

“If you are receiving an accommodation, it doesn’t mean you get the accommodation that you want. It means you get the accommodation that can reasonable satisfy your needs.”

Legal action a last resort

Slepchik said video conferencing is one alternative that would allow students like Kelly to continue learning outside the classroom.

While Kelly acknowledged the university did offer her that as a temporary solution, she said it wouldn’t work for her.

“It would be counterproductive and it would be just a complete waste of my time if I was to do it that way,” she said.

“I can’t interact with the [professor], I can’t ask my questions in the class. And I also have difficulty looking at a screen for a long time.”

Kelly said she will explore legal action if the University of Ottawa doesn’t accommodate her.

“I’m hoping that we won’t have to,” she said. “I feel like it’s something that could be worked out quite easily without having to take drastic measures. But, ultimately, that’s what will happen if I cannot be accommodated.”

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