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Restaurant apologizes after child with disability asked to remove shoes

Jan. 14, 2014 at 2:27 PM ET

Emma Duke
Courtesy of Catherine Duke
Emma Duke in the shoes she wore to the restaurant.

When Catherine Duke stopped in at her local Panera Bakery in Savannah, Georgia earlier this month, she thought it would be a routine stop at her regular eatery.

Instead, the mom of two daughters, 3-year-old Ana and 2-year-old Emma, said she found herself becoming a squeaky wheel over a pair of squeaky shoes — sticking up for her family against what she felt was discrimination.

Due to a number of developmental disorders and a spinal abnormality, Emma wears orthopedic shoes, which were prescribed to her by her orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist.

Duke said that when she walked with Emma to get a coffee refill, an employee at the independently owned Panera franchise took her aside and asked if she could remove her daughter’s shoes.

The reason? According to Duke, the employee said that customers were complaining that the shoes were squeaking.

Catherine Duke with her daughter Emma.
Catherine Duke
Catherine Duke with her daughter Emma.

“I explained that she had a disability and could not remove her shoes, and there were no other shoes she could wear because they were prescribed by her doctor,” Duke told TODAY.com. “And I told her that I would be leaving if my child wasn't welcome in her shoes. And she said, ‘Oh we don't want to lose your business,’ but I left the restaurant crying.”

While little Emma didn’t notice the fracas caused by her shoes, her older sister did: Duke said that Ana asked her, "Mommy, why are they being mean to our family?"

Duke spoke to the store's management about the incident, and also spoke out in local media. She met with franchise officials a little over a week later, and says they gave her a formal apology and even offered to hold a fundraiser to help pay for Emma’s medical bills.

When asked about the incident, the local franchise official said he could not comment, and referred TODAY.com to Panera Bread’s corporate office which issued the following statement:

Emma Duke
Courtesy of Catherine Duke
Emma Duke

"As you would expect, Panera Bread does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The last thing we would want to do is make anyone feel unwelcome. Consistent with this system-wide policy, our franchisee met personally with Mrs. Duke to directly hear and address the concerns she has raised. We understand from our franchisee that Mrs. Duke has been assured that she and her family are always welcome at Panera and her concerns have been addressed."

Duke says she is satisfied with the restaurant chain's response, but as for going back where she was once a regular, she isn't yet sure.

“The management has assured me she'll be able to wear her shoes there,” she says. “As far as me going back in there, I guess only time will tell if she'll be accepted there or not.”

Duke adds that she wasn’t “trying to smear Panera’s name” by bringing her story to light, and only wanted to stand up for her daughter and other children who are disabled.

“I've had a lot of people supportive and thankful that I said something,” she says. “I just wanted to make people aware that children with disabilities are discriminated against. It's wrong. A lot of people don't say something, but I wanted to. I don't want them to ever be taken advantage (of) or mistreated.”

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