Back in May 2011, Danielle Duford and her four daughters went to the Golden Corral restaurant in Westland, Michigan. They were not able to eat their meal but were told they must leave immediately due to the appearance of three of Duford’s daughters. The three girls have a genetic skin disorder, epidermolysis bullosa, that results in them having blisters on their skin due to minor injuries and even changes in the temperature. Duford told the restaurant manager that her children had a disability and that they were not contagious but they were still made to leave, on the grounds that other customers had complained.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in and sued the Golden Corral for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), under which public accommodations including restaurants are prohibited from “discriminating against people on the basis of disability, or their association with an individual with a disability, in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods or services offered.” The Golden Corral has been ordered to pay $50,000 in damages to Duford and her children and $10,000 in civil penalties to the U.S.
With a view to preventing further incidents of what Barbara L. McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan calls “discrimination based on unfounded fears,” the Golden Corral must also “develop and maintain a non-discrimination policy” that covers both service to customers with disabilities and also provides employees with training about their obligations under the ADA.
At Another Restaurant, a Waiter Defends a Young Customer With a Disability
I was especially struck by McQuade’s use of the phrase “unfounded fears.” Despite the unstinting efforts of disability advocates, misperceptions about disabilities, and about individuals with disabilities, remain embedded in society. Another case in which a child with a disability was discriminated against in a restaurant revealed similar troubling attitudes.
Back in January, the Castillo family, whose 5-year-old son, Milo, has Down Syndrome, was at Lorenzo’s Prime Rib, a restaurant in Houston. Another family who was seated near the Castillos requested that they be seated elsewhere. Michael Garcia, a waiter, overheard a man with the family say (in reference to the Castillos) “special needs children need to be special somewhere else.” Garcia told the man “I’m not going to be able to serve you, sir” and also (as the man was leaving the restaurant), “How could you say that? How could you say that about a beautiful 5-year-old angel?”
The Castillos were regulars at Lorenzo’s Prime Rib. Garcia, who had indeed put his job on the line, was hailed on the national media as a “hero.” Donations poured in and Garcia won more acclaim after doing another good turn, giving the $1,145 he received to the inclusive preschool that Milo attends.
It’s no wonder that Garcia’s acts of kindness received national attention. Too often, we hear about public establishments (such as a McDonalds where a worker got into a dispute with a mother about her autistic’s child service dog) failing to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
One issue that needs to be kept especially in mind is why someone like my teenage autistic son Charlie might be acting in what seems like unusual ways in a public place. Restaurants are places where — due to smells, lights, the noise of people talking plus clanking silverware and dishes — he experiences a potentially overwhelming sensory overload. We used to take Charlie out to quite a few different restaurants routinely but, as he’s gotten older and more sensitive to his surroundings, he has very much preferred not to eat out. I wonder, too, if his sensing other people’s responses to him made him anxious and unable to enjoy a meal?
The Justice Department’s decision on behalf of Duford and her daughters is definitely a step in the right direction. As Eve Hill of the Civil Rights Division comments, “No one should be excluded from participating in the basic activities of daily living on account of fears of their disability, nor should children be shamed from going out in public.”
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