Special Needs Kids are Consumers and They Have the Right to Shop Where They Please

Lisa_Quinones_Fontanez_AutismWonderland_Special_Needs_Kids_Are_ConsumersYears ago, before I was a mom, I used to work in retail. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, I wasn’t so pleasant, sometimes customers rubbed me the wrong way and it was difficult to maintain a professional attitude. And since then, I’ve encountered customer service employees who make me question why they’re working with the public.

Last month I read a blog post by Sunday Stillwell. A group of special needs children (including Sunday’s sons), teachers and paraprofessionals were stopped by an employee upon entering a local store and asked “Why do you have to bring those children into this store?” 

I was not only shocked but completely appalled. Not even on my worst retail day – could I ever imagine doing this.

Because this wasn’t a group of rowdy teenagers, bursting into a store looking to make trouble. It was twelve kids – all with special needs – between the ages of six and eleven years old, out on a shopping trip to purchase goods to donate to the local homeless shelter.

These monthly outings are part of Community-Based Instruction (CBI) created by the Baltimore County Public Schools Department of Special Education. The program teaches children how to interact in different social situations, how to make a purchase, navigate a parking lot, wait on line. The goal for the students is that “[they] will live, work, shop, and play in integrated environments in the community, and that they will participate, either independently or with accommodations and supports, in typical activities across a variety of settings.”

Sunday Stillwell with sons, Noah (8) and Sam (10)

Sunday Stillwell with sons, Noah (8) and Sam (10) — How can anyone think of refusing this kind of sweetness?

When I read about these things happening, I take it personally.  In the past my son, Norrin, has made similar outings to neighborhood stores with his school. On the weekends, we run our errands, going from store to store. We go out to eat. We go to museums and playgrounds. Norrin goes where we go.

I also have a sister with special needs. And she had a similar program in her school. Now she’s old enough where she can go out shopping on her own. It gives her a sense of independence. I want Norrin to be able to do the same when he gets older.

It’s what any parent of a special needs child wants. We want our kids to feel comfortable going out into the community. To feel safe, accepted and understood. And we want store employees, employers and other consumers to know that our kids have a right to shop where they please. They cannot be asked to leave. They cannot be discouraged to enter. They cannot be refused service or assistance. They have a legal right to go and shop where they want.

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of individuals with special needs.  When their rights are violated – it’s discrimination.

As parents, we have the right to speak up for our children when our children are being discriminated against. It’s not about being sensitive or teaching our kids to  toughen up – it’s about respect, equality and dignity.

Sunday Stillwell didn’t stop at writing a blog post – she contacted the store’s corporate office and they not only apologized, but they agreed to make a donation to the homeless shelter. The children, teachers and paras will also be invited back to the store to meet the general manager who will be provide them with the customer service they deserve.

Have you or your child ever faced discrimination? How did you handle it?

Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.

And don’t miss a post! Follow Lisa on Twitter and Facebook.

photo credit: Maya Wechsler, Maya’s Eye Photography

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