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Metro mom says gymnastics studio unfairly denied her daughter with autism

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GLADSTONE, Mo. -- A metro mother feels like her 3-year-old daughter with autism was discriminated against after she tried to enroll her in classes at a Gladstone, Mo., gymnastics studio, but was told to go somewhere else.

In response, the owner of the studio said her staff is simply not trained to handle kids with special needs, and she saw it as a safety concern.

The little girl at the center of the controversy is Bella Crowe, who is bubbly and always smiling. While she loves to play, she also knows when it’s time to work – putting in 40 hours a week with a therapist who helps her cope with autism.

“Autism, it`s widely different,” said Bella’s mom, Tia Crowe. “Not every child with autism is the same.”

Tia described Bella as high-functioning, and explained her little girl’s therapist thought it was time she started socializing with other kids. She suggested the best option was to enroll Bella in a dance or gymnastics class.

But when Tia called Creative Arts Academy in Gladstone, this was the message she got:

“Tia, this is Diane at Creative Arts Academy, and Megan told me that you had called on Friday and were interested in a Tumble Jungle class for your 3-year-old daughter with autism, and we are sorry, our instructors are not trained for special needs classes, and I don`t think it would be fair to your little girl, or to bring her in to one that we don`t have some training in that. So I’m sorry and hopefully you can find some program for her. Thank you."

“It was hurtful,” Tia said of listening to the message. “I feel like she was just being judged.”

Bella's therapist called back and talked with the same employee. During that conversation, the therapist offered to attend classes with Bella, but was told that's not allowed.

“It is discrimination,” Tia said. “I feel like they saw her for a disability right away, right when they heard the word ‘autism,’ and it`s just not fair. I don`t want her to grow up like that and I don`t think it`s right for people to think that.”

But Creative Arts Academy owner Pamela Raisher denied any kind of discrimination claims.

“Our mission statement is, ‘We care about kids,’ that's what we're about,” she told FOX 4.

Raisher said it simply comes down to safety for all kids in her care.

“I have been advised that in the best interest of the children, we need to disclose that we are not trained in special needs,” she explained.

Raisher said her studio has accepted children with autism in the past, but she learned her staff wasn't capable of handling the kids safely, so she's now taking advice from her liability insurance provider.

“I would love to have an instructor that is as talented in dance, or gymnastics and special needs,” Raisher said. “If there’s someone out there, please I would hire you in a heartbeat. We would love to have more programs, but we have to work within what our reality is.”

Raisher added that after Bella’s mother posted a complaint about the situation to their studio’s Facebook page, the backlash has been harsh.

“People have really just misunderstood us terribly and judged us without knowing at all,” she said. “We have not gotten anyone that asked us what happened, but my goodness, we are just being inundated with hate mail. It’s very disconcerting.”

In a follow-up conversation, Raisher said her staff offered Bella a free trial class to see if they could make it work; but Bella's mom declined that offer, telling FOX 4 that Creative Arts Academy is clearly not the best place for her daughter.

Instead, Tia hopes that simply sharing their story will raise awareness, and show others, “just because she has autism, it absolutely does not define her.”

So what do you think? Was denying Bella admittance to the gymnastics studio reasonable or really discrimination?

Gillian Wilcox, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Missouri, said it’s important to look at the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states private companies like the gymnastics studio must modify its services to include someone with a disability.

“While a business might feel like it`s a burden or it`s causing maybe there`s extra costs to provide these services,” she said. “They still have to provide them because people still have rights and there are still civil rights and they still need to be protected, and this law was passed to end discrimination based on disability.”

Wilcox wanted to make it clear that Bella and her family are not clients of the ACLU and she is not currently investigating their case.

However, she said there are protections for people with disabilities at the local, state and federal levels, and depending on the situation, noncompliance could end in a complaint or a lawsuit.

“So if the ADA applies,” Wilcox said, “they can’t discriminate based on a disability and they have to provide modifications to their services in order to include someone that might have a disability, and maybe couldn’t participate in the way the other children are participating.”

To learn more about the ADA laws, click here.

To learn more about Missouri statutes protecting people with disabilities, click here.