Whole Foods states that its “inclusive” stores treat customers with “courtesy and respect,” but actions by their employees and contractors show that training is needed before they begin to include persons with disabilities.
I recently went shopping with my brother Michael, a 26-year-old with autism, at a Milwaukee Whole Foods store. After walking away from my side my brother took some food from the hot bar. He is sometimes confused by the order of payment and shopping etiquette, plus he may have been confused by the samples. My brother doesn’t speak — it’s part of his autism — so couldn’t explain himself when he was confronted by two Whole Foods security guards.
The two Whole Foods security guards then escorted my brother to the exit of the store. When I found out what happened I explained my brother’s situation and offered to pay for the food. The Whole Foods security personnel responded that my brother would never be allowed back unless he was on a leash like a dog. They told me that they had never spoken to my parents about my brother – so this was their first response. When my mother complained to the assistant manager about how my brother had been treated, the assistant store manager apologized for the specific use of the word “leash” – but he clearly was not pleased with having my brother in his store.
After I collected hundreds of signatures on a Change.org petition, and brought more attention through Twitter, the store manager called my mother. The store manager said that one of the security guards had been removed from the store. He defended the actions of the other guard. With urging, he agreed to provide some sort of sensitivity training in that store, but refused to provide specifics and refused to work with the local autism society.
After more than 500 people signed on to this petition, the national office of Whole Foods got involved. The store contacted our local autism society to set up a training, but has not held such a training with our local autism society or with any other third party. We are hopeful that they will live up to their promise and actually conduct it. In the meantime, they said that they had their own in-house trainer speak with the staff, but we do not have many specifics (details below).
I am thrilled by this pledge to provide quality training locally, but I want to ensure that it occurs, and I think that preventative training is needed in other stores so that everyone who works in Whole Foods is prepared to treat people with disabilities with courtesy and respect.
What happened to my brother is not an isolated incident.
In Dallas in 2011, a 28-year-old man with autism was arrested for trespassing while he was shopping in a Whole Foods store. Police were told to come because the man was “acting odd.” The man stated that he had autism and the information was simply disregarded. Whole Foods never formally apologized. We do not know how many other cases go unreported, either because they are less flagrant, or because families do not publicize their experiences.
Whole Foods website touts their extensive staff training and highlights their values including:
Our stores are “inclusive.” Everyone is welcome…
Customers are fellow human beings with feelings and emotions like our own; they are equals to be treated with courtesy and respect at all times.
I am asking the Whole Foods corporation to live up to their stated values by implementing formal, quality training for everyone who works in their stores on how to interact with customers who have disabilities.
We — the family, friends, and supporters of persons with disabilities — urge Whole Foods to become a store that shares our commitment to human dignity.