WESTFIELD, NJ – The mother of a young boy with Down syndrome is speaking out about a popular gymnastics studio that denied her child a birthday party because of his disability. Theresa Kuhns of Cranford said she was surprised how fast her story spread after she posted it on Facebook Thursday afternoon. Angry parents quickly shared her post, and some are calling for a boycott.
In her post, Kuhns explained how she called the day before to reserve a spot for her son’s fifth birthday party at the studio’s Garwood location. (Surgent’s also has two gyms in Westfield and one in Roselle Park.)
She wrote that she was given a spot for the party over the phone and went to the gym in person Thursday morning to sign a contract and leave a deposit.
“As I’m looking at the form, it explicitly says no special needs children will be accommodated or can participate,” she wrote.
She told the manager on duty that her son has Down syndrome. The manager checked with the gym’s owner and eventually told her that “because of insurance purposes and no instructors having special needs training, they cannot host this party,” she wrote.
DJ Surgent, son of owner and founder Jim Surgent, told TAP into Westfield that the gym’s policy comes down to the safety of the children participating in the program.
“We don’t have anybody on staff with special needs training and certifications,” Surgent said. “We didn’t feel comfortable that we could prevent injury.”
Surgent, whose mother was a special education teacher who worked with children with Down syndrome, said he sympathized.
“I understand how that could be upsetting for any mom. I really do,” he said.
Surgent’s does not have group classes for children with special needs but it does offer private lessons at times when the gym is less busy and equipment can be arranged appropriately.
"We're happy to do it. We've been doing it for years," Surgent said of this type of private instruction.
In her post, Kuhns stressed that her son has no medical restrictions and said that he is “more like your typical child than not.”
“I don’t understand how this has been allowed to continue but my heart breaks for my son and others who would want to take a class, have a party, etc.,” she wrote.
Special education law consultant and child advocate Greer Gurland said the case sounded “disheartening and disturbing.”
“I would be interested to know what options the gym considered to address their safety concerns,” said Gurland. “It sounds like a missed opportunity to build a connection to a wonderful community.”
Kuhns told TAP into Westfield that DJ Surgent called her Thursday night and apologized, but stopped short of allowing her son to have his party at the gym.
“We had a good, productive conversation,” said Kuhns. “He did say he wanted to take the right steps in the future. I don’t think it’s the big undertaking that he thinks it is, and I hope they make the changes they say they would.”
Kuhns is heartened by the outpouring of support she has received from the community.
“Social media has changed what a business can and can’t do,” said Kuhns. She said that eight people so far have contacted her to say that their child was denied a chance to participate at Surgent's for the same reason. “I think this is just plain discrimination," said Kuhns. She noted that October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
She called Surgent’s apology “a great first step.”
Surgent noted that the gym, which has been in business nearly 40 years, is a supporter of Special Olympics.
Additional reporting by Jackie Lieberman.