Trying on a sweater should never end in a lawsuit. Yet, that’s exactly what happened between retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch and a 14-year-old autistic customer, Molly Maxson.
The Ohio-based chain of popular mall stores known for employing (and selling to) the preppy, collegiate and impeccably symmetrical was ordered to pay $115,000 for discriminating against an autistic teen by refusing to let her join her sister in a fitting room. The company, who has reported $26.7 million in sales declines over the last quarter, cited adherence to its shoplifting policy.
According to Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, discrimination against people with autism is common. For autistics who are reliant on daily routines or have a sensory processing dysfunction, it can be stressful enough to venture into a clothing store, supermarket, movie theater, or dentist’s office. Now add isolation and intolerance.
If only this incidence could be viewed as a “teachable moment” that could be cured with advocacy, tolerance and training. Unfortunately, the retailer’s ongoing actions says otherwise. Abercrombie & Fitch was also forced to award $15,000 for relegating a young employee with a prosthetic arm to the stockroom and is currently facing litigation for not hiring a young woman who wears a hijab.
There is a growing field of marketplace discrimination, which explores the differential treatment of customers based on perceived traits, such as members of ethnic minorities, age, gender, physical ability and sexual orientation. There are amazing public service campaigns, such as the “I Exist” campaign from the National Autistic Society, which sets out to say—to put it bluntly—that not all autistic people can count toothpicks.
Yet, with the recent announcement that around one percent of all U.S. children currently have an ASD, some companies, like hotel-chain Microtel Inns & Suites, are taking note that those with disabilities represent not only significant spending but a collective bargaining power. Organizations, like the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, work tirelessly to further rights in the realm of retail.
It’s interesting to note that that a quick Google search of “autism + in a store” yields many results for awareness-related t-shirts and bumper stickers but few helpful accounts of the trials associated with being autistic in public. I can’t imagine anyone is ever in the mood to fight these kinds of battles publicly, but perhaps the best way to overcome these institutional indignities is by simply speaking up.