Monday, October 6, 2014

A gym refuses to host a birthday party for a boy with Down syndrome

A gym refused to host a birthday party for a boy with Down syndrome: That story made the web rounds at the end of last week. As mom Theresa Brown Kuhns of Cranford, NJ, tells it, when she headed to a local gymnastics school to sign a contract for a fifth birthday party for her son, Liam, she was turned down. The form states that "Surgent's Elite is not certified in special needs instruction and reserves the right to deny party and gymnastics instruction." As she noted on her Facebook page:

My son has Down syndrome. He has no restrictions medically. I tell the manager this who then says he needs to call the owner and asked me to step out. He came back and said because of insurance purposes and no instructors having special needs training, they cannot host this party.

Social media outrage ensued. The owner of the gym, DJ Surgent, called Theresa Kuhns to apologize and said the gym would take measures to be more inclusive. Kuhns said his apology was a "great first step" but also told the website Tap Into Westfield, "I don't think it's the big undertaking that he thinks it is." Indeed Surgent said, "We don't have anybody with special needs training and certifications."

So here's the thing. This is a story about understanding that kids with special needs, just like other kids, deserve to be included—exactly what many people reacted to. But it's also a story, a never-ending story, about figuring out ways to include kids with special needs of all kinds. While Liam may not have medical restrictions or require special accommodations, the truth is that there are plenty of kids with Down syndrome and other special needs who do need extra help. Kids with Down syndrome may have looser ligaments and musculoskeletal issues, as this article notes. Kids with autism may have sensory issues. Kids with cerebral palsy can have spasticity. Max was turned away from a Parents Night Out program at a hotel this summer mainly because he needed assistance with toileting, and the person running the program wasn't open to discussion.

The accommodations necessary to help level the field for a child with physical, cognitive or sensory extra needs should open a conversation, not close a door.

Places that run programs for kids have a moral and ethical obligation to understand a child's specific challenges without outright dismissing children because they have special needs. To the best of my knowledge, there is no formalized "certification" required for including children with special needs at a gym, let alone running a birthday party—it's mainly it's a matter of collaborating with the parents. I doubt insurance policies specifically state that kids with disabilities are a liability. In fact, when Max had parties at a kid gym as a tot, like every parent I signed a waiver absolving the gym of responsibility should injury occur.

These places also have a moral and ethical obligation to not make assumptions about kids with special needs—it's possible that no accommodations are necessary, thankyouverymuch. Every child with special needs is different: If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism, the saying goes. Also: If you've met one child with Down syndrome, you've met one child with Down syndrome. And if you've met one child with cerebral palsy, you've met one child with cerebral palsy. 

Is what happened legally discriminatory? Per the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" to people with disabilities—but there is a lot of gray area. The law takes into account available resources and whether accommodations would place an "undue hardship" on the operation of a business. It's unclear who else was coming to Liam's birthday party but if there were one or more kids who required special accommodating, again: How about discussing this with the parent? 

Whatever the law demands, in reality a lot of this comes down to a flexible mindset. I reached out to gym owner DJ Surgent to share a guest post that inclusion expert Torrie Dunlap of Kids Included Together wrote for this blog after Max was refused entry into a program: 8 ways to include kids with special needs in programs, events, classes, camps, wherever. He wrote back the next day. The email read: "Thank you for the email and all the great information. We have been offering special needs in private and also classes with a shadow for years but we have not done it in a party yet. I will use your information to help us incorporate it into a party in the future. We have additional training to do but we are on our way."

This was heartening. As parents of kids with special needs, it's regularly and painfully clear to us that people do not understand children with special needs. It's upsetting when incidents like this happen—not just because our children are missing out but because of the moral tug-of-war involved. Why should we have to try so hard to get our children to be part of this world? But that's the way it is. And each one of us has to keep doing what we can: to advocate for our kids, to help people better understand who they are, and to keep pushing those doors open.

Theresa Kuhns got a call from the gym over the weekend saying they will host the party, reports Tap Into Westfield; the owner says he plans to hire someone with special needs experience to get his staff "up-to-date." Kuhns hasn't yet decided whether or not she'll go with it because she's been flooded with birthday party offers for Liam from other places.

Candles photo: Flicker/Jess_lynn 483; image of form:; photo of Liam, Facebook


  1. Thank you Ellen for all you do for Max and all of our special kiddos.

  2. Every place we've been has been so inclusive. We are just really lucky.

    Museum: Your kids with autism can't do the show with the sprinkling water, loud noises, etc. (basically 4Dc I think)? Cool, we'll do the sound effects and other stuff for the [neuro]typical kids and do a regular video for the ones with ASD.

    That same museum also had an ASL interpreter.

    The pumpkin patch we went to asked us what our kids could do , rather than telling them what they couldn't do.

    Every Place we've been to has been so incredibly accommodating. It sucks to hear stories like this. It really does.

    1. I am so happy to hear this! Where do you live, Tisa?

  3. Gosh, I am shocked. We have booked parties for Natty in many venues and she has attended gym classes without any fuss at all. This gym were perhaps overthinking the whole thing. Well done for highlighting the issue.

  4. The insurance question may be a real issue! The owner may wish to host yet his insurance says that other training must take place or risk losing their insurance coverage.

  5. I don't understand this response from the owner: "We have been offering special needs in private and also classes with a shadow for years but we have not done it in a party yet."

    What? I'm not sure what the difference is, if his concern is untrained staff and insurance liability. Did he think a party for a child with a disability would mean he'd suddenly be overrun with them? Does he not understand that a child with Down syndrome will have friends and siblings with no disabilities?

    It still reeks of a fundamental, core misunderstanding on his part of what disabilities are and how to accommodate them. Such a shame.

  6. that makes me so sad! my daugther goes to a school for the blind, so all of her classmates have special needs. she has had 3 parties at The Little Gym and they have always bent over bacwards to make the party as perfect for her and her friends as when her big sister used to have parties there. I usually pay for an extra instructor, but that's for my peace of mind- not a requirement of the place.

  7. We had Ben's 5th bday at a local gym place and they were very friendly. He didn't need any special help. All he wanted to do was run, jump and play with all the other kids. Imagine that!

  8. We have been very lucky so far. This make me very upset, and I hope the owner will remedy the situation. Happy birthday to the sweet boy and his family!

  9. Reading between the lines of these stories and your post, it seems like one of the fundamental questions in these situations is whether or not the owner is being really, truly honest. Do they truly believe that ironclad laws of liability, insurance, and professional practice prevent them from doing what disabled children need? Or, are they using these vague but somewhat familiar concepts to avoid the hassle?

  10. If I were Theresa Kuhns, I'd definitely accept one of the other offers and leave this place in the dust. It's nice to see they're re-thought their stance on having the party, but if that were me it would already be too late, sorry. As they say, first impressions are everything!

  11. I'm glad the gym has seen the error of their ways and has agreed to host the kid's birthday party -- that they NEVER should have refused to host in the first place!!


    The flipside is that parents of SN kids also need to be willing to abide by (reasonable, if non-negotiable rules). A few years ago, when I was still in high school, I spent summers working as a lifeguard at a local community pool.

    The one and only rule that caused endless upset (to parents) and grief (to lifeguards) was that floaties (rubber arm things to help with buoyancy) had to be Coast Guard certified.

    This was a non-negotiable city bylaw, there were signs all over the pool complex with this rule posted in large, friendly letters and Coast Guard floaties cost maybe $12 (at Walmart, Target, etc).

    At least 4x per day, some parent pitched a HUGE fit when it was politely pointed out that their kid (special needs or not) could not be in the pool in uncertified floaties.


  12. My honors biology teacher is accommodating and does not strike me as someone who teaches honors to avoid students with disabilities. I think that is the case with this gymnastics place. They might have implemented that policy to avoid kids with special needs. It doesn't take a degree to have an open heart and I hope more people realize this.

  13. The biggest shocker came to us on a Disney cruise last summer. Our then 15 year old precious and very special daughter functions at an elementary-age level, she is potty trained, walks, talks and gets along with other children and loves all things Disney. When we asked to include her in the children's program on the cruise, we were told that she would be required to go with her high school "peers", not her cousins and the elementary aged children where the characters roam freely and interact with the children. What a disappointment for her to find out that "Zombie week" in the high school group was not for her. We made requests, complaints and wrote letters, the "policy" will not be changed according to the Cruise line official that I spoke with. So if you want inclusion for your Special child on a Disney cruise, go before they turn 13.


Thanks for sharing!

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