Nova Scotia

Family speaks out after mall refuses cart for autistic child

The Lavallee's say there aren't enough resources in public places for families with special needs.

Lower Sackville couple says public places need to go further to help families with special needs

Rachel Lavallee says their family struggles to go to public places because Sam often tries to run away. (CBC)

A Lower Sackville family says more public places need child-sized carts with seatbelts after they were told they weren’t allowed to use a cart at the Halifax Shopping Centre.

Six-year-old Sam Lavallee has autism. His mother says he’s at the severe end of the spectrum.

He’s developmentally about the same age as his 20-month-old brother. His parents have to stay within arm’s reach because he won’t return when his name is called. His mother said he’s a serious flight risk.

Sam is non-verbal, so he can’t ask for help if he gets lost.

Last weekend, an employee at the Halifax Shopping Centre said Sam was too big to use one of the mall’s small carts with a seatbelt.

"I was almost begging at that point," said a tearful Rachel Lavallee, Sam’s mother. She said she told the mall she was willing to sign a waiver.

The Lavallee's depended on mall buggies like this one to restrain Sam while they shopped. (CBC)

Sam used one of the carts as recently as January. But this time, the employee wouldn’t budge.

The employee offered the family a wheelchair, but it had no belt to keep Sam in place.

"It was the straw that broke the camel’s back," said Lavallee. "So now we can’t even be in the mall."

The family owns a buggy, but it’s too big to fit in their vehicle, and Sam is quickly growing out of that cart as well.

"If we don’t have the means to stop him from running besides a hand hold, it’s just too much of a risk and too difficult," explained Sam’s father, Mark Lavallee. He said the family rarely goes out together.

Growing frustrations

Rachel Lavallee said this is one incident in a growing list of challenges her family faces. he said there aren’t enough resources to support families of autistic children.

"There’s no camps. There’s no after-school programs. There’s so very few resources," she said.

"The fact that we can't just go to a mall on a Saturday to get something that needs to be done, done. It's just another kick."

She said this isn't just about her family. She believes public spaces have a responsibility to serve people with special needs, and it could be as simple as putting seatbelt on a wheelchair.

"These kids aren't your typical physically disabled, but they have other needs. And they make up a huge portion of the families that these malls are trying to serve."

Another family contacted CBC to say they had the same problem at another Halifax-area mall. They said malls could easily solve the problem by putting a belt on a wheelchair.

Mall investigating

Stephanie Guilfoyle, the marketing manager at the Halifax Shopping Centre, said the employee was following a policy that is supposed to protect kids from getting stuck in the buggies if they’re too big. But she said the mall is learning from the situation.

She’s contacted the Lavallees and Autism Nova Scotia to find out what they can do.

"I know that there are a number of specialized equipment, whether it be wheelchairs or different carts that we may be able to review and including in our services."

The Nova Scotia's Disabled Persons Commission said it hasn’t received any complaints about this issue.

But it’s a familiar story to Jan Willem Gorter.

He’s the director of CanChild – the Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University. He said getting specialized equipment for children with disabilities can sometimes be held up by a lack of funds.

Gorter said it is important for children who have conditions such as autism or cerebral palsy to be able to function capably within society. 

"There's still work to do," he said. "It's not only the physical environment. In the end, it's the willingness of people, and the openness of people, to help other people and make the connection with families with disabilities." 

With files from Shaina Luck.