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Billings business under fire for 'no-stroller' policy

Owner says she's trying to prevent theft
No Strollers
Posted at 6:09 PM, Apr 03, 2024

BILLINGS - A Billings retailer is under fire over a policy prohibiting strollers inside after an autistic three-year-old child was prevented from entering with a stroller.

The owner of the business, Stones and Bones, on the corner of 24th Street West and Broadwater Avenue, says the aim of the policy is to protect against shoplifting, although disability advocates argue the policy potentially discriminates.

The dispute went public on a Facebook community page in the past week after the family anonymously shared their one-star customer review of the business, claiming the owner was abrasive while removing them from the store.

Stones and Bones co-owner, Crystal Hamilton, didn't dispute the incident, noting the front door of the business has a sign that reads "no strollers."

After the dispute went viral, disability advocates around town weighed in, including Laurel resident Kristen Jenkins. She and her six-year-old son both suffer from autism and, while they don't know the family involved, she said the scenario sounds like something the two of them have experienced.

"It's very frustrating," Jenkins said. "It's pretty difficult, especially with the service dogs. It's quite difficult because people want to touch or they want to feel."

Jenkins said the post made her emotional thinking about past experiences.

"I saw that, and I couldn't just scroll away," Jenkins said. "I have my own son that's the same way."

MTN News was unable to reach out to the family involved because their original post was anonymous, leaving no way to send them a message.

Hamilton told MTN that it had nothing to do with the girl's disabilities. She claims that the family never told her that the child had autism.

"We've had large, expensive items strolled out of the store in strollers," Hamilton said. "Why should we suffer loss? Why can't we protect ourselves from theft and shoplifting? Shouldn't that be our right as business owners?"

Hamilton said the store had three different experiences where more than a thousand dollars worth of merchandise was stolen from the store using a stroller. The business sells rocks and crystals, and she said the thieves were able to hide bigger items in the stroller.

The incident has generated concerns as to whether the policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Carlos Ramhlo works as the executive director at Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow (LIFTT), an organization in Billings that advocates for disabled residents. Ramhlo said that a stroller would fall under the ADA if it is being used as a mobility device.

"Strollers and wheelchairs are very similar, but they are not the same," Ramhlo said. "In that case, it's a violation of the right of equal access. They are preventing that individual on the stroller from living life to the fullest."

Hamilton argued that the stroller wasn't being used as a mobility device, even providing surveillance video which clearly shows the girl walking into the store under her own capacity. In the video, the family speaks with Hamilton briefly before exiting the store.

"She walked in just fine and her mother stated that they needed to put her in the stroller to prevent her from touching things," Hamilton said. "There was no mention of her autism, and when I told them that strollers weren't allowed, they left."

MTN News is unaware of any formal complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging violations of the ADA. Even if one is filed, the agency may opt not to investigate if it sees no clear violations of the law.

A big part of the dispute stemmed from Hamilton's online response to the customer review, which read, "Wheelchairs are fine. Wheelchairs aren't generally used as a shop lifting aid. The sign says 'no strollers.' That applies to you too, regardless of how special you think you are."

Hamilton said that while they do not plan to change the store policy, she expressed remorse over her online response to the customer review.

"I was angry about the one-star review," Hamilton said. "My response was not professional. I could've had a better response."

With no changes being made, Jenkins is committed to not visiting the business.

"I can't support a business that won't support the disabled," Jenkins said.