Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dear stores: Please educate your employees about people with disability



The news has been spreading: A Bath & Body Works store refused to allow in a group of students with special needs. It happened at the Chesterfield Mall in Missouri, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As troubling as this incident is, it points to a bigger problem.

What went down: Seventeen students from Fort Zumwalt North High School in O'Fallon took a trip to the mall last Thursday to practice life skills, and were divvied up in into small groups, accompanied by staff. As teacher Alice Maloney noted in her Facebook post on the incident, the students were supposed to find stores, locate a product and write down information on it.

When her group tried to walk into Bath & Body Works, a staffer stopped them and said they could not come in. Apparently, the employee thought the group wouldn't buy anything—and that by entering the store and passing by the sensor that tracks foot traffic, it might hurt their sales percentage.

Maloney explained to her students that they were not welcome, although they did not understand why. She noted that other groups from the school "were met with the same rudeness."

Her final words were particularly disheartening: "This field trip turned out to be more than a life skills and social skills lesson, they were exposed to discrimination!" 

Bath & Body Works soon issued the requisite apology: "Providing our customers with the exceptional shopping experience is of utmost importance.... We very much regret this misunderstanding and have personally spoken with the teacher to offer our most sincere apology and welcome her and her students in our stores at any time."

This incident resulted from one staffer's bad attitude. But there's a good chance the Bath & Body Works powers-that-be haven't made it clear to employees that customers with special needs are to be treated like any customers. Would a Bath & Body Works store deny a group of so-called typical teens entry because they looked as if they'd just sniff away and not shop? I doubt it.

While Bath & Body Works is getting the bad press for this, I'd venture to guess that the majority of stores don't give employees training about differently-abled individuals. (And if you have insight into this topic, by all means prove me wrong.) It wouldn't take much, and it might just head off a public-relations nightmare. True, training can't resolve employee ignorance or prejudice toward people with disabilities, but companies can make it very clear that intolerance is unacceptable, and equal access is mandated by law.

"Training" employees about people with disability sounds more major than it is. Really, it's common sense. If parents like me were to talk with a gathering of Bath and Body Works employees (how cool would that be?), we'd tell them that young people with disabilities would like to be treated with the same respect and congeniality as other customers. Keep it real–speak to them in a normal voice. Realize that yes, they can make purchases, even if they may not communicate or act like other people do. (And even if they need help buying stuff, they can still have totally normal materialistic urges. Exhibit A, located in our home: A bazillion pieces of Lightning McQueen merchandise.) If someone with special needs is flailing his arms or making noises, that is his way of expressing himself—he is not being purposefully disruptive. Know that some kids use their strollers as wheelchairs and so even if strollers aren't allowed in a store, if a parent says it's because a child is disabled, then that stroller should be allowed in the store. All this goes for restaurants, too. 

Stories like this are unnerving. I felt awful for those students. That's the thing about social media: Hearing about these incidents makes you acutely aware of yet more permutations of discrimination. They make you fear for your own child's future. And yet, you hope that good will emerge because people are making it clear that treating people with disability like second-class citizens won't be tolerated. Stores, take note.

Image: Flickr/Mike Mozart

30 comments:

  1. To answer your question yes they would have done the same with a group of typical teens accompanied by a teacher and carrying paper and pens, all which makes it clear this is a school assignment where nothing will be purchased. I know that because it happened to my daughter social studies class ( working on learning about marketing in stores...where the most expensive products were located etc...) and for the same reason as occurred here ( scared of bad foot traffic numbers). The store really wasn't supposed to do that but The year my second daughter went they called in advance.

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    1. Yes, maybe it is a good idea for large groups to call ahead. This incident came off as discriminatory since the staffer did not seemingly inform the teachers about any general policy the store or chain has about not allowing in groups of students. If that is the case with Bath & Body Works, or other stores, they should have a statement of that policy clearly visible to the public…not that they would, because it seems rather inhospitable and unwelcoming--and no store wants to come off that way. But now, they certainly have.

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    2. When my daughter's sports team did a scavenger hunt at a local mall, they were turned away a few stores. The manager didn't want them trying on dresses, taking a selfie, then leaving. I actually agree with that manager that having a group of teens racing about a department store is not helpful to other customers. The coach was not with any of the groups of 2-3 girls. No one called ahead to check if it would be OK to do the scavenger hunt.

      The group of kids who entered Bath & Body Works were with a teacher, so they should have been allowed to walk in the store and gather information. I cannot imagine that a store would deny a parent's request to bring a stroller in a store. Very insensitive. Plus stores have to be ADA accessible so stroller = wheelchair = elderly person's wheeled walker.

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    3. Ellen. To me it didn't come off as discriminatory torwards the disabled, it came off as discriminatory to a non-customer. It's NOT an official policy of the store, but the individual managers don't really want non-customers in there, which your scenario indicates they were not and it seemed clear they were not to the manager (with teacher, during day, had stuff to write down information). My point is that store managers don't want anyone is there who is clearly not a customer and it wasn't the fact that they were disabled that made this apparent, it was instead the whole set up. Just like it did for my kid.

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    4. Um, no. Just no. Turning away groups of kids - with and without disabilities - at a store in a mall is both wrong and (likely) illegal.

      It is perfectly legal to browse in stores without buying anything.

      It is perfectly legal to enter a store, take some notes on the products in the store and leave without buying anything.

      It is perfectly legal for teachers to accompany groups of students into stores without giving the store advance notice.

      All of your kids - the ones with disabilities, the ones without - were absolutely discriminated against. There are no rules, none whatsoever, banning groups of kids from entering Bath Body Works, at the mall.

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  2. 'She noted that other groups from the school "were met with the same rudeness."'

    Doesn't that mean that other groups of normal students were being turned away as well, or were all the student groups from this school disabled? I think the issue here was that they wanted to enter the store to do an assignment (and in all likelihood, not buy anything) rather than shop. If anything had been said about their disabilities I'd see this as discrimination, but I don't think turning away a student group from wandering through your store is necessarily discriminatory without knowing more about the situation. Then again, we have different ideas of what reasonable accommodations are--I do think flailing and yelling are disruptive and wouldn't expect a stroller used as a mobility device to be allowed special access to a place strollers aren't permitted.

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    1. The larger group of students were divided up into smaller groups. And Cass, perhaps you don't have a child in who uses a stroller as a mobility device, hence your insensitivity, but they most certainly should be allowed in stores where strollers aren't permitted—given that stores need to be handicap accessible. I don't believe the ADA specifically points to strollers used as mobility devices, but it just makes…and, it's the decent, humane thing to do. You do believe in being decent, don't you?

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    2. The first clue that your post was going to make me angry was the "normal" word. Excuse me, my child is perfectly "normal". I never find flailing and yelling disruptive from my "normal" kiddos. I find stares and finger-pointing to be far more disruptive to my "normal" day.

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    3. Yes, Mandi! The last line of my comment above should read "but it just makes good sense." Of the kind this person Cass does NOT make.

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    4. wow your remarks show a total lack of understanding of the special needs community. My child is 16 and uses a STROLLER to get around. Yes it is a larger stroller made for larger kids but it is indeed considered a stroller. He is non mobile so without this stroller he cannot get around. He also has numerous other disabilities but is a smart, funny guy who loves to go shopping and make his own choices about purchases. If fact he is far more polite and kind then so many of the "normal" people we encounter. It is all about common decency and respect for all.

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    5. Wow. How insensitive can Cass be? Why is she even reading this post? My 8-year old uses a stroller for special needs. Let a store employee even try to tell me he can't enter the store in a stroller and see what happens! And "flailing and yelling is disruptive"...? Get over it, lady. You obviously do not have a non-verbal grandson who cannot help his "flailing." You need to take a good, deep look at yourself and wonder why you're making these statements.

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    6. Can I please just say that I am 21 years old and I use a stroller when I need to? I also cannot always control my arm movement and sometimes it will jerk or "flail" or most recently, my newest thing, is the need to clap my hands. It's a whole neurological roller coaster.
      Plenty more I could say. The only thing I really need to say...
      I am 21 years old. I am about to sit my final undergraduate exam in psychological science and get a bachelor degree, and go on to study a masters.
      And I have and will continue to use a stroller.

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    7. A mobility device is someone's arms/legs. If a store did not permit the use of your extremities, would you chop them off to comply?

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    8. To answer a few questions above, I read this blog because I have a child with special needs (duh, a lot of readers do as well, I'm sure.) I apologize if I haven't used your preferred vocabulary, these are just the words I know and use in my own community. A difference in opinion on what's disruptive and not hardly seems like something to lose it over but what can you do. But clearly I need to find some better blogs to be reading!

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    9. Cass, honey, the pecking hens here do not want truth, fact, or sensibility. They WANT a reason to cackle and complain. Anyone who has ever gone into a Bath & Body Works store knows they are always overcrowded with displays and difficult enough to get around in without adding the stress of a group of teenagers pawing through everything to find a product description. These salesclerks are put under a lot of pressure to keep their numbers up and I've known a few who were fired because their sales numbers did not meet foot traffic.

      ellen and her gaggle of hens are an embarrassment to those of us with disabilities or disabled family members who actually get on with life and are well integrated in regular society. They will never be a part of regular society because they do not truly want equality. They want superiority but that is never going to happen and it pisses them off.

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  3. Cass is clueless. Obviously has no experience with children or special needs anything! Barf

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  4. How rude of the staffers if somebody said I wasn't allowed somewhere i would raise some serious hell.

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  5. This is shocking, but my response is not in the way you may think. Yes, I am unhappy that students of any sort we turned away. But I've recently heard that Corporate management in many retail stores have made unrealistic rules for stores, i.e. employee is to make a sale to EVERY person who enters. If they don't, their sales percentage (as you said in this post) goes down and employees are then monetarily penalized for their low percentages.

    This is the new and current trend for UPPER management to make more $$$ at the expense of the employees in the trenches—implementing their ridiculous missions. It is related to GREED. I am all for capitalism, but when it comes to GREED, I am not OK. And that is, in my opinion, what many company CEO's are becoming--greedy. As a whole, many (not all) commercial ventures no longer value helping others. We don't value helping a group of challenged students learn life skills. Americans value sales, profits.

    I used to work for a company that initially fostered relationships with our clients. As time went on, they changed the workplace climate. It became only about the bottom line. The employees balked, refused to go along with the "new" guidelines until it affected their paychecks. And believe me, when you quit getting raises, receiving bonuses, you get on board or you lose out.

    In my opinion, it sounds like this person was actually doing what the CEO's wanted--although they probably would never admit to this. But if their company message is sales, sales, sales, and employees are penalized if they don't make sales, then subconsciously, that is the message and mission of the corporate office. Corporate officers need to quit tying sales to walk-in traffic. Some of that walk-in traffic might not buy that day, but if they are treated positively, they might return in the future for something. So all in all, I think this situation is sad all around and shows how ineffective this "current" trend of many companies actually has turned out to be.

    Instead of directing our anger at the employees, maybe it should be directed at the CEO’s who make up these ridiculous rules and make the employee standing at the door look like a horrible person. But this is just my opinion.

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    1. I think you put that beautifully. Corporate tone is set from the top down.

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  6. This is our local Bath & Body Works, but it is not the first time that a Bath & Body Works has turned away a group of disabled students. A similar group in AL was asked to leave the store through a side door. Evidently conversion (foot traffic to purchaser) ratio takes precedence over decency and the dignity of the young people involved when dealing with Bath & Body Works. In response, we are having a Make Your Own Kind of Beautiful open house to concoct homemade lotion, hand soap, bath fizzies and candles for gift giving. It will be a celebration of friendship & community. We are asking for donations to cover material & packaging but anything beyond that will be donated to charity, probably our local Down syndrome association. I invite other families to do the same with your children and friends. It will be so much more rewarding than shopping at a store where the final word is about the bottom line and can convey our commitment to love and acceptance for people with many different kinds of abilities in a positive way. I was so angry and felt so powerless when the B&BW story broke but now I'm excited that we have a chance to make something lovely out of the ugliness.

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  7. Reading through others' comments here, I wonder if this sort of project is typical in schools (going to stores and gathering information, not necessarily life skills)? If so, then yes, teachers should know enough to call in advance. But that still doesn't dismiss the Bath & Body Works staffer's bad attitude. As for "bad" foot traffic, there are lots of stores I myself love to walk through, but I can't afford to buy everything I'd like to, even if it is only a few dollars, and I have no problem whatsoever leaving my own "bad" foot traffic! (Personally I think B & BW prices are ridiculous and one of the only times I ever actually buy anything there is during their twice annual big sales, but that's just me...)

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  8. It seems like the incident's meaning is muddied a bit by the fact that they were clearly students on a field trip. However, I agree that all kinds of retailers need to do a better job of training their staffs about serving disabled customers. One thing I suspect is missing from the training is telling employees to ... if you will ... interrogate their own gut reactions to things before they speak or act. A harried, under-paid Assistant Manager might well see a group of 3 or 4 kids making odd noises and movements and think, "What the hell? Something's up! I need to nip this in the bud! Keep the store orderly!" That's when they should stop, think a moment, look again, and consider whether what they think their seeing is actually what they are seeing. It's all very well to say "Don't discriminate against customers with disabilities." on a PowerPoint, but what that actually means in practice isn't always clear.

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  9. I have worked in retail for a large national company. Sadly no training is provided. However, basic human decency says that we treat ALL customers with respect. Regardless of your abilities, when you entered my stores you were offered assistance in any form needed. However, this is not always the norm. No, I have never seen any training or discussion. However, I will point out that companies do read and follow the surveys that customers are offered on their receipts. Take the survey every time, and be honest. They will see the survey! This is one way to have your voice heard! Many companies are holding their associates highly responsible for these surveys. People think they are just a gimmick, but they are read and reread and analyzed. Comments on the survey will get noticed, both good and bad.

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  10. I'm white middle class and as a teenager was asked to leave stores because you aren't going to buy anything. The first time it was a shock because the mall nearest my home didn't do that - because they knew we had our parent's credit cards.

    Another time I was ask to leave because we don't have things for people like you. My cousins (who were welcome), sister (also welcome) and I couldn't figure out if people like you were tourist (sister has more of a Texas Drawl than I do) or geek. We leaned towards geek was the problem - store missed out on a $200+ Canadian in sales because my family dropped what they were interested in and left with me.

    My Uncle went to a bank. He is a fisherman. He was dressed in slacks and thick sweater. He was told he couldn't go in an area, because there was going to be an important meeting with some serious businessmen. He tried to introduce himself - and was rebuffed. He left, went to a locally owned and controlled bank. Called the people who wanted to do business with him and told them if they wanted to complete their multi million dollar deal, they could meet him at the local bank. You would think a bank located on an island where fishing and tourism were the main money makers, would figure a fisherman might be involved in a business deal having to do with the fishing industry.

    I do wonder if the teacher cleared this activity with mall or the stores. I can think of about 5 cases where groups of children were used as cover for adult shoplifters, often during school hours. So some of the "rude" behaviors, might have been because the staff thought the adults were using the kids. I know our lifeskills group always clears their field trips like this before hand. That way they can avoid other groups, and sometimes the stores have extra staff on hand to help the group.

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    1. I want to second the possibility of shoplifting - as a former retail clerk that was always my first concern with a group of kids - any age, size, gender or whatever - unfortunately it is true that there are adults who will use this situation to steal.

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    2. Yup, if I see any large group of teens in a store, special needs or not, my first thought is going to be "shoplifting" and I'm going to keep a very close eye on them. Is it fair? Probably not, but experience tells me to make sure they don't ever get out of sight.

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  11. Strollers being used as mobility device is something on my mind lately. There's been a big push on our public transportation system about ensuring people in wheelchairs (and other types of disability) have proper access, which of course I support. One of the things they are focusing on is people with strollers who use the wheelchair spaces - because they are, first and foremost, reserved for wheelchairs. So if someone came on the bus with a wheelchair and there was a person with a stroller, the person with the stroller would have to fold it up or exit the bus and wait for another one.

    So far, so good... but what if the person with the stroller was someone who was using it for mobility - would they also be expected to vacate the space? How would the driver, sitting at the front of the bus, know? Or if a person who uses the stroller for mobility wants to get on the bus and there is a "regular" stroller already using the space, would they have to move? Is there going to have to be a sign saying that the stroller is a mobility device?

    At this point my daughter's still young enough that I can fold her stroller and take her on my lap if I need to, but I'm worried about what will happen when she gets bigger and it's not as much of an option.

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  12. I agree that the root problem here was corporate metrics--local store managers should also be evaluated on positive social media hits --imagine all the good PR that could have been generated from a group photo with the manager in front of their sign!

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  13. It's horrible to see this kind of discrimination. I'm sure people go into stores all the time, browse without making a purchase, and leave. How is this situation any different? Mobility devices are a person's arms/legs. You can't expect me to chop off my limbs if your store does not permit the use of one's extremities.

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Thanks for sharing!



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