On Nov. 11-13, we hosted the 11th Annual FARE Teen Summit in Milwaukee. We invited attorney Mary Vargas, 11-year-old Mason Wicks-Lim and 13-year-old Sam Picone-Louro to speak about their case. Their session received a standing ovation from attendees, and we asked Mary to write about her experience for the FARE blog.
Special thanks to Ali Wicks-Lim for recording this powerful session, which you may view below.
By Mary Vargas
Some carrots grow straight in easy, fertile soil, Mason Wicks-Lim said. Other carrots must grow in rocky soil and therefore must find ways to grow around challenges, becoming both stronger and more unique in the process.
“We are the unique carrots,” Mason said to an audience of over 300 food allergic teens and their parents at the FARE Teen Summit. This simple statement was one of quiet defiance and humble triumph of spirit. This was proof of the silver lining that is growing up with food allergy in a world that is not convinced that food allergic children have a right to live in the world.
When he was 10, Mason was turned away from a children’s theater program because of his food allergies and his need for access to epinephrine. Mason’s friend, Sam, was kicked out of the same program for sending an email advocating for Mason’s inclusion.
In the face of discrimination, these children had the courage to stand up and assert their right to equal treatment – a right protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mason and Sam filed discrimination complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging that the theater program, Young Shakespeare Players East, discriminated against them on the basis of Mason’s food allergy and retaliated against them for asserting the right to equal access.
The United States investigated and concluded in June 2016 that Young Shakespeare Players East not only discriminated against the children but acted toward them in a manner that was “coercive and intimidating.” In so finding, the Department of Justice drew a line in the sand and stood with the allergic community. This line in the sand – that allergic kids and their allies cannot be subject to discrimination on the basis of disability – is now helping other food allergic kids all over the United States gain access.
But for Mason and Sam and their families, challenging discrimination in their own community was far from easy. The children and their parents were vilified – Sam was publicly called disrespectful for asking that her friend not be discriminated against. In legal briefs, the program’s lawyer called the children and their families names for asserting their rights – claiming that because Mason’s mother asked for accommodation, she was therefore a mother who could not be bothered to care for her child. The program’s lawyer also claimed that asking a children’s program director to be willing to administer epinephrine to Mason in the event of an allergic reaction was the legal equivalent of involuntary servitude.
Mason and Sam did not just miss out on participating in an activity that was of interest, they lost peers, mentors, and the belief that grown-ups will do what is right. Despite a finding of discrimination by the United States government, Young Shakespeare Players East continues to operate, take tuition, recruit children, and exclude Mason and Sam. The lessons Mason and Sam continue to learn about the meaning of justice, and the lack thereof, would be difficult for a person twice their age to process.
And yet, here they stood at Teen Summit as the unique carrots – the ones who faced and continue to face challenges for the good of our community, undeterred by the price they’ve paid in their community. While this silver lining is not one we as parents would choose for our food allergic children, it takes root nonetheless and it shows in the compassion, empathy and strength of the unique carrots our children become.
This was my first Teen Summit, yet it also felt like coming home. The support from the audience offered a much needed boost not only for Mason and Sam, but for me as well. I was incredibly impressed by the passionate parents who shared their own experiences advocating for their kids, who offered support for the work that we do, and who reaffirmed our commitment to advocating for the full and safe inclusion of individuals with food allergies.
Mary C. Vargas is a partner at Stein & Vargas, LLP, a civil rights law firm that focuses on nationwide impact litigation to ensure equal access for individuals with disabilities. Vargas has won critical victories in significant disability discrimination litigation and has a special interest in food allergy law. In 2015, Vargas joined Laurel Francoeur and Homa Woodrum in founding the Allergy Law Project, a free resource that provides balanced and responsible information about the intersection of food allergy and law. Vargas previously was a guest speaker for FARE’s “Food Allergies in the Workplace” webinar, which discussed the rights of applicants and employees with disabilities, with special focus on food allergies.