ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A Northampton mother is suing the Walt Disney Co. after her son with autism was barred from entering the Disney Store at Lehigh Valley Mall because he was not wearing a mask.

The lawsuit says the 7-year-old boy, who is identified in the court filing only by his initials, is highly sensitive to touch, especially on his face, like many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. For that reason, the lawsuit says, his mother decided after experimenting with different face coverings not to force him to wear a mask in public.

When Shea Emanuel took her sons to Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall Township in August on a birthday outing for the boy’s younger brother, staff at the Disney Store would not allow them to enter because he was not wearing a mask. Emanuel explained to the store manager that her son has autism, which prevents him from wearing a face covering, but the manager refused to allow the boy into the store, the lawsuit claims.

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The experience was humiliating for Emanuel and her sons because they were turned away in front of about a dozen other patrons waiting. Her elder son, “was especially distraught since he was unable to fully comprehend why he was not allowed to enter the Whitehall Disney Store,” the suit says.

A Walt Disney Co. spokesman said Disney stores operate in compliance with the law and that the company would respond to the allegations in court.

“We are always focused on the health and safety of our guests and employees, which is why we implemented a number of enhanced measures, including a face covering requirement, at our stores during this unprecedented time,” the spokesman said.

Attorney William Mansour said the goal of the lawsuit is to educate Disney and other companies that as places open to the public they are required to make accommodates to people with disabilities, including in their COVID-19 safety policies.

“A lot of companies large and small do not know what their obligations are when it comes to enforcing mask policies,” he said. “We hope to get some clarity on that, hopefully from a federal judge.”

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine issued a statewide order in July requiring masks in public places. The order contained an exception, however, for people with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask including mental health conditions or disabilities. There is no requirement to provide proof of a medical condition.

Emanuel’s lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Allentown, alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the Disney Store’s policy of denying entry to people without masks effectively bars people with disabilities that prevent them from wearing one. Under the ADA, a store is considered a public accommodation that must be accessible to those with disabilities, the suit says.

The company was not legally required to enforce the state’s face covering order because the boy was exempt and it could have permitted him inside because the store was limiting the number of customers, reducing the chance he would interact with others, the suit claims.

Mansour said there are several other lawsuits against companies that have refused entry to people not wearing masks because of a disability. In one case, three families with children diagnosed with autism, anxiety and muscular dystrophy who cannot wear masks are suing the company that operates Kennywood Park, an amusement park outside Pittsburgh.

The suit says child psychiatrist Robyn Thom noted the difficulty some people with autism spectrum disorder experience with masks in an article for Harvard Medical School.

The sensations of rough fabric against the skin and tug of elastic on the ears combined with the warm, damp smell of recycled air make wearing a mask a source of concern and worry for people with autism, she said.

“While wearing a mask is uncomfortable at best, these unpleasant sensory experiences can be intensely magnified in people with ASD,” Thom wrote.

The lawsuit seeks a court order barring the Disney Co. from enforcing its mask policy against people with disabilities covered by the ADA, and attorney fees.

© 2020 The Morning Call
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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