Last Monday, 27-year-old Joseph Lewis returned home from his day trip to Wickham Fruit Farm with his admission money still in hand, his mother, Fontaine, said.
Mr. Lewis, who has mild autism, was part of a group of developmentally disabled students taking a field trip to the farm. But the group left before it entered the orchards after being treated poorly due to their disabilities, she claimed.
“When I saw the words said to these children I got outraged,” Ms. Lewis, who was not on the trip, told The Suffolk Times.
Her post on Facebook sparked outrage on social media, as hundreds shared the stories and bombarded the farm’s Facebook and social media accounts with bad reviews, accusing the farm of discrimination against disabled people.
But the owner of the farm disputed the group’s account, saying the group of students was never discriminated against.
According to Facebook posts by Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk staff members Lucy Belle and Samantha Williams, farm co-owner Gekee Wickham repeatedly insulted students on the group’s trip last week after one student placed his hand on her shoulder.
“One of our friendly consumers [sic] patted her on the shoulder and her face was filled with disgust and she said ‘He’s touching me I don’t want him touching me,’ ” wrote Ms. Williams. “She made them all feel sooo [sic] uncomfortable … and wasn’t mindful of her attitude and or the way she was turning away our business. She blatantly told us that she didn’t care if we left or not.”
Ms. Belle wrote that Ms. Wickham told her “the clients ‘are not allowed in the store,’ that they are ‘bad for business’ and customers in general ‘don’t like to see them.’ ”
After the alleged confrontation, the group left the farm. Ms. Belle and Ms. Williams did not return phone calls seeking additional comment.
Ms. Wickham did not return calls seeking comment. But Tom Wickham, co-owner of the farm and Gekee’s husband, said their account of the incident wasn’t entirely true and denied accusations that Ms. Wickham insulted the group.
“One of the young people in the group came up behind my wife and sort of touched her on the shoulder,” he said. “It surprised her and she reacted. One of the group leaders said ‘Oh, that’s rude’ and they turned around and left. That’s basically what happened … We were happy to have them.”
The farm often sees groups of mentally handicapped people stop by, many of whom have good experiences and are repeat customers, he added. He said they have a special package for these groups that often includes Mr. Wickham personally giving them a ride around the orchards.
He acknowledged that it was his wife’s reaction that caused the problem, but insisted that it wasn’t intentional and “wasn’t against any person or people or any type of person.” He was disappointed that the group chose to leave, although the farm didn’t force them to go.
“People are free to do what they want. We’re not trying to stop them,” he said. “They make their own decisions and they left.”
Mr. Wickham said he called one of the group leaders the next day apologizing, and sees this experience as a learning experience for the farm.
Ms. Williams said the EOCS had been to the Wickhams farm before and never had a problem. But she said Ms. Wickham was “extremely disrespectful” and “categorized them as if they weren’t people like you and I.”
“No one with developmental disabilities should be treated as such,” Ms. Williams wrote. “I know I can’t kill the hateful actions of people who act as though they are better then them, but I definitely want to make sure something is done about Wickhams Fruit Farm.”
As of Monday afternoon the farm has 14 five star reviews and 106 one star reviews on Facebook. Their overall rating has plummeted to 1.5 stars.
“How dare you deny a group of autistic children,” commented Facebook user Brett Booth, adding a one star review. “May this be a lesson to you and a stain on [your] business that never washes out. If you are considering visiting Wickham’s Fruit Farm, I urge you to find another establishment to support.”
Dozens of other users echoed his sentiments.
“I have been to your farm in the past,” said Stephanie Hewson Morsellino. “I can tell you hearing this story I will NEVER come to your farm again and I will tell EVERY ONE I know not to either. I have a child with Down Syndrome and this discrimination makes me sick to my stomach. Hope you go out of business because of this.”
Ms. Lewis has posted the same message on the Wickham Fruit Farm page to her own personal account accompanied a picture of her son. The post has more than 900 shares as of Monday afternoon.
She has also posted it to numerous groups, such as Autism Speaks and Autism parents discussion group, and the post has thousands more shares, she said. Ms. Lewis added that people from all over the country have contacted her, and the overwhelming amount of social media support “felt great.”
Still, with an outpouring of support, the incident bothers her.
“It was very upsetting because Joseph is so soft and mild and sweet,” Ms. Lewis said. “[The EOCS] tries to group the children by their level of function, so all the children were mild mannered, quiet and well-behaved. It was very hurtful.”