Food allergies and autoimmune diseases aren't laughing matters. Celiac disease in particular affects one out of 133 people in the United States. People living with celiac aren't able to eat foods like pizza, pasta, bread, pastries or french fries without experiencing debilitating side effects that include vomiting, severe weight loss and diarrhea. Those suffering from celiac disease must limit themselves to a gluten-free diet.
For young people in elementary and middle school, the demands of such a diet could strike many of their young peers as odd. Being "different" from one's classmates in something as elemental as eating meals at school can be profoundly alienating, especially for kids who need the approval of their peers.
Recently, the Disney Channel pulled an episode of "Jessie" because an Ohio Township family complained about its use of celiac as a sight gag in the sitcom. Amy Raslevich and her husband, Jeff Kelly, were outraged because their children, Laura, 11, and Sam, 8, were offended by a scene that portrayed celiac in a way that didn't acknowledge the seriousness of the disease.
Because Laura and Sam were diagnosed with the disease 18 months ago, they were upset by a scene in the show in which a character has pancakes thrown at him by other kids after they learn he has to eat gluten-free food. Pancakes are not gluten-free.
The Ohio Township family started an online petition designed to pressure the Disney Channel to pull the episode because it allegedly uses gluten-intolerance as an excuse to bully children with the disease. A few thousand signatures later, Disney took the episode off the schedule and apologized to viewers. The family successfully exercised its right to protest content it found offensive, but it was not the kind of victory that will do children suffering from celiac any good in the long run.
Without taking away from the seriousness of the disease, it should be possible to portray it on a kids' show as a source of conflict, just like it is in real life. After all, conflict is a natural part of every child's environment, so why pretend celiac is so sacrosanct that it has to disappear from view like it was something shameful? Why not show how unenlightened some kids can be? Instead of pulling the episode, Disney could've expanded the scene to educate audiences about the disease.
After all, kids' shows deal with uncomfortable subjects like bullying all the time without making bullies disappear. Most kids with celiac are more resilient than either Disney or the well-meaning family in Ohio Township give them credit for.