William Paap, 9, tried to enroll in daytime classes at Emerald Coast Gymnastics but his family says he was turned away because he has spina bifida.
FORT WALTON BEACH — William Paap was born with spina bifida. Now 9 years old, he uses leg braces to help with endurance, as he has very little feeling in his feet and parts of his legs are paralyzed.
Despite his disability, William loves to run and jump just like other boys his age. That's why he was so excited when his physical therapist recommended to his mother, Cynthia, that because William continued to ace the exercises in their sessions she should enroll him in gymnastics classes so he could continue to improve his balance.
So she did. Last Thursday, William and younger sisters Selah, 6, and Alyssa, 4, were scheduled to begin daytime classes at Emerald Coast Gymnastics. That's when the family says William was turned away after gym owner Jean Lowery refused to let him participate because of his disability.
The Paaps contend that William being turned away from the gym is a clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title III, which prohibits “privately-owned, leased or operated facilities” from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.
“After we signed up, we got a call back the next day from the secretary saying that the owner said our two daughters could participate, but not our son because it was too much of a liability,” Cynthia said. “My response was that (the owner) hasn’t even met William, and we’ll come in and you can see how much function and mobility he has and we’ll take it from there. Then (the secretary) said that would be fine.
“So we came in as scheduled and the secretary said the owner was sticking to her guns, and he wouldn’t be allowed to participate," she added. "(William) was standing next to me and heard all of this. He understood what was going on and it led to a lot of pleading and tears on my part and his part ... basically telling them that he can run and walk and jump just fine. But ultimately it was still a ‘No’ and he just had to watch.
“His mind and his heart work fine, as does most of his body. He completely understands feelings of rejection, just like anyone else would.”
Lowery declined to comment.
Cynthia's husband, Josh, is in the Air Force and scheduled to leave soon on a six-month deployment.
“It’s going to be the first time my husband is away from the kids,” Cynthia said. “Josh is the one who roughhouses and wrestles with William. ... I just thought it would be nice for him to run and jump and learn to do basic stuff like somersaults and have a good outlet for all that energy.”
Lowery and Cynthia did speak eventually — after the family posted a negative review on the Facebook and Google Business pages for Emerald Coast Gymnastics.
“What I got from our conversation was that (Lowery) had hoped we just wouldn’t bring him in, but she did apologize profusely for what happened," Cynthia said. "She was oblivious to the fact you have to serve people in the disabled community. She also offered for us to come back in, but I declined because I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable going back to the place where we were arguing and crying last week. It didn’t seem like she really understood what was going on, because she just kept saying ‘Well I had hoped you just wouldn’t bring him in.’ ”
Another gym, Ocean City Gymnastics, reached out to the Paaps and offered to have William come in and participate. He’ll start classes there on Monday.
October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month. Disability Rights Florida, the designated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities in Florida, did not return a call seeking comment.
“I think what you can take from this is that discrimination is alive and well in 2019,” Cynthia said. “And if the excuse is that it’s an insurance liability, then the insurance company is doing something illegal by saying they’re going to deny access to this establishment because of a disability.
“Even if he was in a wheelchair or needed an oxygen tank, which he doesn’t, our laws are pretty clear on stuff like this," she added. "We’ve made it really clear to William that we don’t ever want him to have a victim mentality when it comes to his disability, but we also want him to know his rights when it comes to something like this or jobs or school or whatever comes up.”