Tennessee family upset over store’s treatment of son with Down syndrome

Sam Grubbs was told he couldn't try on clothes in the dressing room at Stein Mart (WATE/Family photo)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – A family was left in tears over how they say they were treated during a shopping trip in Knoxville.

Gina Grubbs says she was shopping at Stein Mart in Dean Hill with her son, Sam. Sam is 20 and has Down syndrome.

“Everybody at Hardin Valley knows how Sammy loves to dress and he’s very proud. He always wants to look nice,” said Gina Grubbs. “He cannot zip zippers or button buttons, he needs help.”


Sam was in the women’s fitting room trying on clothes when Gina Grubbs says he stepped outside to see how he looked in the mirror and didn’t haven a shirt on. That’s when she says an employee told her Sam was not allowed to be in the dressing room.

“She was like ‘Oh my gosh, what is he doing here? He can’t be in here,’” said Gina Grubbs. “At that point I stuck my head around the corner and said ‘Excuse me.’ She said ‘We can’t have him in here. You guys are going to have to go somewhere else.’”

The family says they understood and asked for other options because Sam can’t be alone. They were told Sam could go to the men’s side.

“I said ‘By himself?’ and she said ‘Yes, women aren’t allowed in the men’s fitting room either,’” said Gina Grubbs. “I said ‘He can’t go by himself. He wouldn’t understand what to do.’ I asked ‘What are we supposed to do then’ and she said ‘I don’t know. I guess you go somewhere else.’”

Gina Grubbs said the exchange was hurtful and the first time her family has been treated differently.

“Something that we’ve started thinking about the last few days, other people see him as a man, he’s 20, I understand that, but he clearly has down syndrome, so I can’t understand how anyone would think there would be anything inappropriate,” said Gina Grubbs.

Now, the family is hoping to start a conversation and get options for families who don’t fit into what’s considered normal.

“I do think that there should be some training and I think there should be some better policies to deal with the public and handle a delicate situation,” said Gina Grubbs. “I think if Sammy could understand really what was going on it would break his heart.”

WATE 6 On Your Side reached out to the Down Syndrome Awareness Group of East Tennessee. Executive Director Angie Holbert issued a statement saying:

It is disheartening to know that people in our community react to individuals with Down syndrome and their families with little compassion or understanding. I hope this situation will bring awareness to others to prevent similar situations in the future. Every person should be given the same consideration in any situation regardless of their physical, cognitive or emotional abilities. Individuals with a disability should never feel shameful for simply completing a task that typically developing individuals are able to do without question regarding their appearance or gender. This behavior should not be tolerated by anyone, it is discrimination. Thank you to this family for advocating for (Sam) your loved one and all individuals who have different abilities.”

A spokesperson with Stein Mart said the company’s CEO, Hunt Hawkins, called the family directly to apologize and left a voicemail. In a statement Hawkins said:

Our merchandising manager observed an adult male inside our ladies’ fitting room area. Working under an abundance of caution, with every customer’s privacy in mind, she immediately directed the man to our men’s fitting rooms without any intent to discriminate. We regret that this happened. We’re reviewing our store policies and our training process. We’re eager to turn an unfortunate situation into a good one for all individuals involved and to take the right action steps to ensure all customers always feel welcome in our stores.”

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