Visualizing Invisible Disabilities

Madhavi Mallapragada discusses representations of food allergies in new media in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

Food allergies are an invisible disability; but because food allergies are not easily visualized or conceptualized in the public sphere, they provide a useful starting point for thinking about how new and established media portray individuals with disabilities. In recent years, more children have been diagnosed with food allergies than ever before. Schools are required to accommodate these students’ needs under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Schools allow students with food allergies who have 504 plans to carry EpiPens and other medical devices, and to carry an emergency care plan document outlining recommended treatment in case of an allergic reaction. The role of media in capturing this invisible disability potentially concerns how individual teachers and administrators, who might not be fully aware of a child’s food allergy accommodation needs, are able to conceptualize these needs. Teachers might receive insufficient training about or exposure to the signs of an allergic reaction, leading to tragic results.

Dr. Madhavi Mallapragada (Associate Professor, Radio-Television-Film) spoke with the HI Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing last week about her research on disability tropes in new media. Her current research focuses on the online food allergy advocate community. A media studies scholar with a cultural studies background, Dr. Mallapragada interrogates these new media spaces in order to uncover the historical formation of the public discourse on food allergies and to learn how the definition of food allergies as a disability is culturally produced. Because disability is visually coded as residing in the body—we expect to see disabilities—Dr. Mallapragada is especially interested in how new media represents invisible disabilities. What, she asks, does it mean to be visible?

To illustrate this question, Dr. Mallapragada showed websites and video clips that demonstrate how people with food allergies and disabilities are typically depicted, and discussed the advocacy community’s response to these depictions. The children’s film The Boxtrolls (2014), for example, features a comedic scene in which a character has an allergic reaction to cheese. A concerned parent responded to this film by posting an online warning to the food allergy community that the scene could trigger anxiety in affected children about their own allergies.

The 2011 film Monster-In-Law also featured a comic food allergy scene, causing a public outcry. The Food Allergy Research and Education advocacy group published a public service announcement in response to Monster-In-Law and films with similar scenes that “food allergies are no laughing matter.” Advocacy groups criticize these depictions in popular media as attempts to downplay the gravity of anaphylactic shock in their work to change the cultural conversation about food allergies.

In conversation with the seminar, Fellows pointed out that food allergy testing may be a site of discrimination. If doctors test children for a “typical American diet” but do not consider common foods from the patient’s culture, this implicit bias could have dangerous consequences for a child’s health. Anthropologists have noted that societies use food as a marker of inclusion or exclusion, and children have reflected that their food allergies exclude them from social spaces. Teachers are the agents through which food allergy practices are enacted, and studies of policy implementation in schools may prove to be valuable.

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