Museum issues apology after disable girl denied access

Published: Jul. 8, 2013 at 6:52 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2013 at 12:45 AM EDT
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Lexi in her new wheelchair at home on July 8th.
Lexi in her new wheelchair at home on July 8th.

SAVANNAH, GA (WBTV) - A Savannah maritime museum has issued an apology after a Charlotte family says their disabled daughter was denied access because her wheelchair would "get the carpets dirty."

Dr. Ken Haas says his family, including 11-year-old Lexi, was in Savannah over the weekend when they were told they wouldn't be able to bring Lexi's wheelchair into the Ships of the Sea Museum on Sunday.

Lexi suffers from Kernicterus, a bilirubin-induced brain dysfunction, which has left her physically non-functional. The bilirubin accumulates in the gray matter of the central nervous system, potentially causing irreversible neurological damage.

Haas says his wife lived in Savannah for a short time and the family had done research online and knew that due to limitations, it might be difficult for Lexi to be able to visit the museum, which is housed in a historic home.

But he says the reason they were kept out "didn't make any sense to me."

Haas says a woman at the front desk of the museum said the family couldn't bring in their wheelchair because it would get the carpets dirty. They then offered to let Lexi use a wheelchair that the museum owns.

Haas says Lexi, who can't sit up on her own, was not able to use the museum's wheelchair because it didn't have straps that Lexi needs. The museum then offered to "have Lexi sit outside and watch a video on a tiny TV while the rest of us walked through the exhibits," the family posted on Facebook on Sunday.

Museum curator Wendy Melton admits that the family was told this, but says it is not the museum's policy. Melton says she spoke with the employee who misunderstood what the museum's wheelchair policies are.

She says the museum offers the wheelchair to people who need it, but no one is required to use it.

The museum does have accommodations posted on its website to assist people with special needs.

"With prior notice, the Museum will make a docent available to a guest with a disability to provide an introduction to the collection, house and garden; set up a video presentation on the collection in the pavilion or classroom; introduce display items in the classroom, and make Museum publications or additional videos available to the guest," the site states.

"At present, due to a conflict between city regulations and those of the Department of the Interior regulating historic sites, we do not have an elevator or lift," the policy continues.

On Wednesday, the museum sent a letter of apology, which stated in part, "We share your shock and disbelief, since the way in which the staff member chose to answer the Haas family's very reasonable request was in violation of the both the letter and the spirit of the Museum's accessibility policy."

It goes on to say, "Until the day after the incident, both in practice and in staff discussions regarding accessibility there has never been any time when the state of the carpet was even discussed as a cause for concern. Hence our own shock and dismay when we heard of the incident the day following the incident (Monday.)"

Haas says Lexi was angry about the incident, saying she just loves to learn.

"They really need to train their staff. They really do. It's a significant error and significant departure in the current thinking on disability access," Lexi's mother Susan Haas said.

Haas said she received an apology email from the museum's director, and accepted that apology.

"In Savannah, we have a reputation of being very accommodating to our guests," Melton told WBTV. "This was an anomaly."

Melton says she has spoken with the employee and made the actual policies very clear for the future.

The apology letter issued Wednesday stated, "While the staff member did not act with malice, her unilateral disregard of Lexi and her family, our written policy (which had just been discussed again earlier that same week as a proactive reminder) and violation of the spirit of our policy (which would have resulted in welcoming assistance -- bringing the wheelchair up both flights of stairs) was a shocking, unilateral and egregious departure from our policy, both written and understood and a heartbreaking lack of judgment. She has been dismissed."

Haas says they aren't looking to file an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint, they just want to make it clear that this type of thing is not acceptable.

"You shouldn't restrict someone because of her disability," Haas said.

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