Advocating for yourself, your allergies and your health is a big part of managing allergic conditions.
We talk to families a lot about the importance of advocating for children with allergies, what that looks like and why it is important. The same goes for adults with allergies.
It can be difficult and challenging, trust me I have been there and definitely don’t always put my best advocation foot forward when it comes to my own allergies. It is important to know that it is ok to advocate for yourself when you have allergies. It is ok to tell people about your allergies and ask for some sort of accomodation. Just as it is ok for them to decide how and if they can accomodate you.
We believe in advocating for yourself and those with allergies but there is definitey a trick to it. At least a way to go about it that will achieve better results. We see the the key steps to effective advocating as, being reasonable in your requests, communicating in a positive way and assisting with the required accommodations. If you are reasonable, fair and positive others will be more likely to want to help and accommodate or at least find it difficult to disagree with your position.
Making reasonable requests
What is reasonable changes in each situation. At a base level it is reasonable to ask for people to be allergy aware. That is to know your allergens, wash their hands after eating and know the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions so they could help you if the situation required it. It is also reasonable to ask if allergy free food can be prepared and if they can prepare it in an environment where cross contamination is minimised. That is not to say that it is possible to meet these requests in every situation, but is is ok to ask if it is possible. If you feel your require an allergen free environment, it is reasonable to ask if this is possible but you need to be aware that it is a very big request and isn’t always possible. In addition, it doesn’t guarantee your safety as you can never know if allergens have been around or if people have followed these strict guidelines you set out. Communicating about allergies, having your medication and making sure others know about your medication and action plans are generally considered more effective ways of keeping yourself safe.
We all like to be talked to nicely, especially when someone is making a request. Using positive language and communication makes it much more likely that others will accept your ideas and opinions. If you go in fighting, it is likely the other person will arch up quickly and fight back, rather than listening to your perspective. It can be hard when you are dealing with allergies, perhaps you have had negative experiences in the past, there can be a lot of emotion. You need to try and put these to the side when you are advocating for yourself. If you have had a few bad experiences and you know you get your back up quickly, try thinking of the positive experiences you have had before you go into the conversation, take a few deep breaths and focus on what you want to achieve and most of all plan your communications ahead of time. For each situation consider what would be reasonable accommodations and how you can be flexible to the situation so you are less likely to be taken of guard.
It is important to note that being positive doesn’t mean you need to be a push over. You can still be firm, assertive and hold your ground. You are simply taking a positive communication approach rather than a defensive, negative or even aggressive approach.
Offering to assist with accommodations
The more you can assist with accommodations or offer to assist the more accommodating people will be. In the end you are the one who is responsible for your safety and your condition. If you require others to wash up, bring some wipes. If it is a close friend offer to help them cook, this is fun and will teach them what it looks like to be allergy aware. Offer to bring allergy friendly dishes that others can share. There are many ways you can help to accommodate.
Going to a restaurant/eating out
Call ahead of time if you can, ask if they can accommodate your allergies, tell them what this means (e.g. there needs to be no dairy in the food, there needs to be no dairy around where it is prepared etc). If they say they can’t help you it is ok to push a little harder “I am wondering if there is one dish you could make safely? You would just need to wash the knife/chopping board before and use a clean pan?. I understand this isn’t a guarantee but it goes a long way to keeping allergens out of the dish”. Restaurants are often scared of making a guarantee and to be fair it isn’t really possible for anyone to guarantee that you will be safe, I often highlight that I am just asking if they can try their best to make a dish that is safe. Even if they agree to accommodate you need to make the risk assessment of whether the accommodations suit your specific needs, everyone manages their allergies differently.
If they are still very inflexible, you can tell they are flippant or they say they simply can’t accommodate (I have had restaurants tell me they can’t manage my nut allergy and I shouldn’t eat there!!), its ok to ask others if the location can be changed. Make suggestions that your know to be safe, offer to call and change the bookings. If this is not possible (work function, pre-organised event) and you really want to go, think about how you can manage. Is there one simple dish you could eat, veggies and rice for example? You could have a meal before you go and just have a snack there like some chips or a drink. At least you still get to socialise. You could even ask if you could bring your own food. The key is being flexible and asking.
Eating at someone’s house
Ask in advance what food they will be serving. Remind/tell of your allergies and how you manage them, “I have a nut allergy and I will have a severe reaction if I eat nuts. It is ok if others are eating nuts as long as they wash their hands after eating and no nuts get into my food and no nuts come into contact with my food while it is being prepared.” “If it isn’t possible to accommodate I am happy to bring something along that I can eat, if you could just please ask people to wash up quickly after eating”. That is a reasonable and fair request. If they say that there will be allergens around and there is nothing they can do about it and couldn’t possibly ask their guests to wash up, that is their choice, it is their house. I am not saying this makes it easy and can be very upsetting but remember that you communicated in a positive way and advocated for your needs and not everyone is/can be accommodating. Make the decision whether you will go based on whether you feel safe.
You may find some people are more than accommodating and will even work to accommodate even multiple, complex allergies. You need to work out if you feel they can understand cross contamination in the kitchen. If you aren’t comfortable it is ok to let them know it is easier if you bring your on food. You could even explain this “thanks for being so accommodating, I have just had a few tough experiences lately and I would prefer to bring my own food do you mind?”
Pets and allergies
This is a tough one!! People tend to get very defensive about pets, it is natural as they are a big part of people’s lives and they love them. Plus if someone hasn’t experienced allergies it can be hard to see how someone is allergic to an animal. Also accommodations are harder because they can’t simply get rid of their pet.
It is still ok to advocate for yourself. “Thanks for inviting me over, I know you have a lovely pet dog. I am highly allergic to dogs. If I was to come over the dog would need to be in another area and you would need to do a quick vacuum before I come. I know this is extra work, do you think it is possible?, I can bring a pet hair brush if it helps”
The alternative would just be to say no to an invitation. But then you haven’t given it a go, the person may say yes, they may be happy to accommodate and if you don’t tell them why you can’t come they will never know or understand and may even get frustrated that you never accept their invitations. This way they know why and can make a choice on whether or not they accommodate.
We had a friend growing up who would have severe asthma attacks with cats and we had a cat. She could still come over, we simply cleaned up and vacuumed before she came and put the cat outside. She would take preventative Ventolin and antihistamine. It wasn’t always great, sometimes she would react and we would follow her plan. But we still had good times together and are still good mates today!
This is just a brief overview of advocating for yourself. I hope it helps a little. It is simplistic because there are so many emotions and challenges that go into advocating. When people say no or refuse to accomodate it can be hard. One knock back, one bad experience, one big fat NO I don’t want to help you or you are being fussy etc. can knock you about in a big way. It is part of being human. Many, many studies show that humans need four positive experiences to get past one negative experience. It is crap when it happens but we have to remember that we cannot control others if they choose to say no that is their choice and we can’t know why they have decided to say no.
I honestly believe that if we advocate in a positive way, the YES!!! will outweigh the NO!! and by communicating clearly and positively you are doing your bit to raise awareness of allergies.
All the best in your allergy adventures!!