BRATTLEBORO — After an incident in which a man with disabilities was mistaken for being drunk and asked to leave a restaurant, local advocates are looking to expand awareness about the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Cory Costo, 62, told the Reformer he intended to have dinner at Amy's Bakery Arts and Cafe on Sept. 18 but it was closing and he did not want to go to The Works Cafe because he had been there a few days earlier. He said that when he went into the Turquoise Grille, he asked what was good to eat and was told, "I don't want to serve you. Please leave."
"I left," he said, calling the restaurant "my third choice."
Costo — who has had cerebral palsy since birth and moved to Brattleboro at the beginning of August — "is visually impaired and has a somewhat slow speech," his sister-in-law, Corinne Pascariu-Costo, wrote in an email. "Rest assure, it is extremely apparent that he is disabled."
The downtown-based restaurant expressed concern about the potential for losing its liquor license if it were accused of overserving someone. It responded to an email from the Reformer, writing that Costo "sort of got hit by the door and stumbled in and he was slurring his words. To any bar keep, that raises a red flag. My bartender and both of my servers working that night mistook him for being intoxicated. It is very unfortunate. At the same time we would not appreciate this fact being skewed and put out there as if we deliberately denied service to a person with disabilities. We are not experts. We are restaurant people who work in a fast pace, high stress environment. The bar keep will have a moment to decide."
The restaurant questioned why staff members were not introduced to Costo through a caregiver. It did not respond to a question asking to identify who had sent the email.
"We couldn't comment if that's a valid defense," said Nancy Brieden, executive director of the Disability Law Project, which represents people with civil legal problems related to their disability.
Brieden said that if Costo was being discriminated against because of his disability, that would be in violation of the ADA. She noted that her group has not been involved in a case exactly like this.
"It might be something we pursue," she said. "It might not be."
At a meeting Friday, the Brattleboro ADA Advisory Committee decided it will ask the Disability Law Project of Vermont Legal Aid Inc. to provide a workshop in town in the spring on what the law is and how it relates to businesses. Committee Chairwoman Julie Tamler said the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance will be asked to help get as many businesses attending as possible.
Tamler shared an email from the restaurant, calling the incident "a complete misunderstanding."
"We had no idea that the incoming gentleman had a disability," the email says. "We are very sorry that we misjudged and came to a wrong conclusion. We thought we were dealing with intoxication. I hope you also understand as persons who have places open to public, we deal with it all. Intoxication, opioids, people urinating and puking in our steps. We are restaurant people. We are not social services. We are not experts at assessing what the actual situation is. I hope you understand. Thank you!"
Two phone messages from the restaurant also included apologies.
Tamler described the event as shocking during an interview at the Inclusion Center in Brattleboro, a free place to gather for people with disabilities, medical concerns and interested community members where she serves as acting director.
"We don't think about that kind of thing happening around here," she said.
Tamler said business owners downtown are very concerned about panhandling and might have knee-jerk reactions.
"But on the other hand, why did they assume that about Cory and not someone else?" she said. "I don't know."
Tamler noted that disabilities are not always obvious and people do not wear placards saying they have a disability.
"People should assume the best," she said.
She said the Inclusion Center and ADA committee are not interested in shaming businesses; they want to educate them.
"I don't want this conduct to be allowed," Costo said. "Not only did it embarrass me, I don't want it to happen to anybody else — tomorrow or today or 20 years from now, even to those who weren't even born yet. I don't want them to experience the same humiliation that I went through."
State Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, had been contacted by Tamler about the incident.
"Given that I haven't had the opportunity to speak with the owners at Turquoise Grille about this specific incident, what I can say is that we all must do a better job in our community of being welcoming of all Vermonters and all visitors," Balint said in an email. "I just attended the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity Conference put on by Curtiss Reed's organization here in Brattleboro, and there was a great deal of discussion about how to make our state and region more welcoming. It is a moral and ethical imperative, but it is also an economic one. We must all do the personal and cultural work necessary to be an inviting and supportive place for all."
In an email, an owner of Turquoise Grill reported feeling discriminated against in the community for being immigrants.
The Vermont Human Rights Commission has been contacted about the incident.
John McKelvie, staff assistant and case manager at the commission, said he could not give specifics on whether his group is investigating. The commission looks into discrimination complaints related to housing, public accommodations and state government employment.
McKelvie said complaints are investigated by a staff attorney who will try to facilitate or mediate a settlement between the parties in dispute. If there are reasonable grounds to say discrimination occurred, information about the case is released to the public and would be found on hrc.vermont.gov.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.