|(Photo: Courtesy of Matt Brown)|
very nice reporting by James Fisher, The News Journal | Aug 6, 2015
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware -- Matt Brown and Hannah Reese had not gone out to dinner once since May, when their infant son, Colton, was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease that prevents many of his muscles from moving.
On vacation with family at a Rehoboth Beach-area home, they decided to dine out at the beach. So on Tuesday, Aug. 4, they set out with the equipment that goes everywhere with Colton: a specialized stroller that allows a baby with his disease, spinal muscular atrophy, to lay flat. The adaptive stroller carries medical equipment Colton needs to breathe, cough and take food through a stomach pump.
"It looks like a moving hospital bed, basically," said Matt Brown, 30, of Pittsburgh, in an interview Wednesday. "We're pushing it through the crowded boardwalk trying to find somewhere to eat."
They came upon Nicola Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue, opened the door, and quickly found their hopes to eat out dashed.
Brown said a restaurant employee denied them seating, citing a restaurant rule against patrons wheeling strollers into the large, busy dining room. That refusal of service, recounted Wednesday in a sorrowful Facebook post by Colton's great-grandmother, Susan Hamadock, of Rehoboth Beach, led to a firestorm of criticism of Nicola Pizza online.
Hamadock and Brown said it was clear to them the restaurant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not seating them. The ADA "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability" in businesses that are generally open to the public, including restaurants, according to a U.S. Department of Justice summary of the federal law.
Brown said in a call to the restaurant later Tuesday night, Nick Caggiano Jr. – vice president of the restaurant company, and the son of founder Nick Caggiano Sr. – gave a cursory apology and said he would better train the restaurant's front-door hosts. But, Brown said, Caggiano did not encourage him to come back, and laughed when Brown mentioned the mandates of the ADA.
"He said he was part right and part wrong," Brown said of Caggiano Jr.'s response to his complaint of unfair treatment. "I was so worked up I didn't want to argue with him... He laughed about the ADA, as if he thought I wasn't educated or something."
"I'm putting all this on me, but we had the 17-year-old [hostess] make the decision. Nobody asked for the manager," Caggiano said. "I would have understood. I would have definitely let that person in here."
In Brown's telling, a hostess first asked him if his group would need a high chair. Brown said he explained that his son would have to stay in his carrier; picking him up from it and putting him in a high chair would be impossible. Children with Type 1 SMA, like Colton, generally cannot move their extremities. Most children with Type 1 SMA live no longer than two years.
"It's a medically adaptive stroller. He can't come out of it," Brown said.
The hostess, Brown said, was resolute: No strollers allowed. They were not offered any way to dine there with Colton if he stayed in his stroller. Embarrassed, Brown said, the family left, with his and Reese's 3-old-daughter confused.
"She wanted to know why we weren't eating pizza, and eating sandwiches instead" – takeout ordered from Arena's, Brown said. "We just told her we changed our minds."
Hamadock, a yoga instructor who lives in the Bay Vista neighborhood, received more than 75 comments on her Facebook post about the incident. Several said they were surprised, Nicola Pizza is a venerated restaurant in the Cape region, and has been famed for its Nic-o-Bolis and pizza offerings since the 1980s.
Moreover, several posters noted, an adult daughter of Nick Caggiano Sr. uses a wheelchair. Many said, the restaurant's decision was flat wrong and it would no longer get their business. "They should be boycotted or educated or both," one Facebook user wrote.
"This is a family I've had respect for over the years," Hamadock said of the Caggianos. "It just needed to be brought to the attention of Nicola's. And when we got such an unacceptable response, to bring it to the attention of the community."
Caggiano said he was not familiar with the kind of adaptive stroller used, and had never instructed his staff to treat people in one as requiring accommodations. He said he regretted that the episode gave some customers the impression Nicola was not friendly to the disabled; in truth, he said, the staff assists disabled customers all the time. For a regular customer who's suffered a stroke and has trouble with silverware, Caggiano said, he routinely cuts up the man's pizza himself.
"What's hurting me the worst is the perception we're getting that we're not friendly to handicapped people and we discriminate against the handicapped. That is so far-fetched it's not even worth talking about," Caggiano said. "I know what it's like to have someone close to you who can't walk. I've dealt with it my whole life."
UPDATE: On Thursday, Nicola posted a note on their Facebook page, saying that they are "very saddened by the misunderstanding." The post concluded with: "We apologize for the misunderstanding and again we affirm our mission to treat everyone as a member of the Nicola Pizza family."