Autistic Danvers Boy Denied Skating Lessons, Policy Changes
A six-year-old Danvers resident with autism was denied group skating lessons in Peabody if his parents or therapist had to be present.
“We know Jack is different. We just want him to be able to enjoy some of the same things as other kids,” Lea Irzyk wrote to the Salem News in a letter that went viral after it was published on Friday, Feb. 10.
What led Danvers resident Lea Irzyk to pen the letter was what she called a blatant stance of discrimination toward her son, who is autistic, from an employee at the McVann-O’Keefe Skating Rink in Peabody.
Irzyk said was told her six-year-old son Jack could not participate in beginner group skating lessons (Learn-to-Skate) at the rink if he needed to have his therapist or parents present at the rink. Irzyk explained that her son has high-functioning autism, and a therapist or having his parents with him on the ice would make it easier for the instructor and be helpful for Jack.
“Sorry, no exceptions,” was the response she received, Irzyk told the Salem News.
“It just made me so upset,” she said. “We’re not asking them to do anything extra or special. We would never put Jack in a situation to send him there [alone] because it’s not fair to him or the instructor.”
According to Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who fielded media inquiries on the issue, the rink has a standard policy that does not allow adults on the ice during the Learn-to-Skate program. The rink employee, in this case, was just sticking to the rules.
The policy, however, is now going to change.
Bettencourt said he called Irzyk on Saturday after learning of the incident and apologized, assuring her an exception could be made for Jack and that the policy would be changing going forward to make sure students with special needs were not excluded.
“I was heartbroken to hear about this,” Bettencourt said.
He added that as a father of three young girls and a civic leader, it’s exactly the opposite experience he wants parents and their children to have in Peabody. He said he’s also known Irzyk for several years.
Bettencourt noted that the rink will actually be shutting down soon for a few months to undergo major renovations, which is a huge investment intended for all to enjoy. He said he spoke with rink manager Paul LoGiudice after reading the news last week and discussed changing the policy for when the rink reopens.
LoGiudice similarly called Irzyk to apologize and assure her Jack would be able to take lessons.
“I told her [they’re] more than welcome to come join us in September,” he said on Monday, deferring further comments to Bettencourt’s office.
Irzyk said that before trying out skating, Jack had been participating in karate in Beverly, with his therapist and family by his side. “Karate has been great,” she said. “We all go together; his therapist stands up there with him to help him and it works fine. He does a really great job and he likes it, and he’s in a class with typical boys.”
When Irzyk’s letter to the Salem News was published on Friday, she said the story went viral.
The next day, Irzyk said, she received an apologetic phone call from LoGuidice. “He was very apologetic, devastated that it happened and takes full responsibility for his employee.”
She said Logiudice told her as well that an exception to the current policy would be made for Jack.
Irzyk added that she also received a phone call from Bettencourt, who told her he was personally handling the situation, as well.
“We’re so grateful and appreciative of everyone who has reached out,” Irzyk said, noting that and various organizations in the community and even former NHL hockey players have come forward to welcome Jack to their programs. “It has been amazing.”
Irzyk said her advice to other parents if they went through a similar situation would be to speak to management, or go to the next level.
“If they’re still not willing to accommodate or help, then you have to escalate it. It’s unfortunate that it had to happen but I’m glad it worked for the best,” she said.