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Thalidomide Woman Demands Apology and Accountability From M&S CEO Following Degrading and Humiliating Treatment From Staff At Its Flagship Store
LONDON – A thalidomide woman – with lower limb disabilities caused by the morning sickness drug thalidomide – is urging the Chief Executive of one of the UK’s largest and most respected retailers to apologise and make amends for what she describes as “degradation and humiliating treatment” experienced at the company's flagship Marble Arch store in London.
Faith Russell-Taylor was born with extremely short legs and hand deformities as a result of her mother having taken the morning sickness drug. On a visit to London – accompanied by three of her adult daughters – she visited M&S's Marble Arch store on May 20 to do some shopping for her grandchildren.
What followed demonstrates a catastrophic failure on the part of the company to meet the needs of disabled customers. In the course of doing her shopping, she realised that she needed to visit an accessible toilet facility and was directed to the basement. Finding the toilet occupied, she waited for some 20 minutes and eventually asked a member of staff for assistance.
The assistant refused, and said that only a manager would be able to help. Eventually, a non-disabled woman emerged with her child (there was a parent and child facility nearby) and apologised to Mrs Russell-Taylor. By this time, she was unable to contain herself and both she and her wheelchair was soaked in urine.
Having cleaned herself up as best she could, she proceeded to the womenswear department as her lower garments had to be discarded. She used her jacket to protect her modesty. She quickly selected a pair of denim shorts and asked to use an accessible fitting room in order to put them on.
The fitting room assistant refused to ask the non-disabled customer to vacate the facility in order for Mrs Russell-Taylor to be able to use it. By now, she was feeling not only feeling degraded but extremely violated. She never thought she would experience such disrespect and disregard from a company that so readily boasts of its excellent customer service.
The fitting room attendant refused to intervene, and informed Mrs Russell-Taylor that, “we don’t get many people like you here”.
Having had to wait several minutes for the customer to vacate the accessible fitting room, Mrs Russell-Taylor entered, put on the denim shorts and wheeled herself back to the attendant. Mrs Russell-Taylor informed her in a low voice that she had put on the shorts and that she was now proceeding to the cashier in order to pay.
At this point, the attendant spoke loudly and clearly in front of a crowd of customers and insisted upon accompanying Mrs Russell-Taylor to the cashier.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” Mrs Russell-Taylor said. “Not only had I wet myself, travelled quite some distance within the store to reach the fitting room, but now I was being accused of being a potential thief, and I am sure this was because I am a black woman.”
Mrs Russell-Taylor completed her purchase and asked to see a manager who offered her ‘a nice cup of tea’. However, by now, she felt too distressed to stay in the store and returned by taxi to her hotel, the Wembley Hilton. Her trip and holiday plans with her daughters were all now ruined. “All I could do was cry,” she said.
There she was contacted by one of the management staff, Neil Lazenby, who – upon hearing about the incident – dispatched two members of staff to speak to Mrs Russell-Taylor at the hotel.
They apologised profusely, gave Mrs Russell-Taylor a bunch of flowers, a box of biscuits and a £100 M&S gift voucher.
“These representatives assured me that these gifts were not from the company but from themselves,” said Mrs Russell Taylor. “If they had been from the company, I would not have accepted them.”
Mr Lazenby subsequently contacted Mrs Russell-Taylor and her daughter and explained that the company would do ‘whatever it took’ in order to remedy the situation.
The matter was then escalated to Marks & Spencer’s Chief Executive, Marc Bolland. Having reviewed the case and put in place some measures to avoid a recurrence of the episode, Marc Bolland’s office informed Mrs Russell-Taylor that the matter was now at an end. In his opinion, the company had already made amends and refused to do anything further.
Mrs Russell-Taylor is part of a volunteer network of people affected by thalidomide, assisting survivors in North America. She was born in Jamaica and now lives in Florida. During the last days of her London trip, she had planned to take her three daughters to see Paris and had already purchased tickets for the Eurostar.
“I was so upset and humiliated that I felt completely unable to leave my hotel, never mind embark upon the short excursion to Paris,” she said.
When the Thalidomide Trust’s then director, Dr Martin Johnson heard about the incident, he was shocked by the change in Faith’s normally strong character:
“A vibrant outgoing personality suddenly afraid of going out in public - all because a major retailer does not think it necessary to protect the minimal provision they make for disabled people from their non-disabled customers,” he said.
“I reassured Mrs Russell Taylor that ‘Marks and Spencer are a good store, they will make it up to you’, mistakenly as it now seems.”
Mrs Russell-Taylor contacted fellow thalidomider and disability equality expert, Geoff Adams-Spink. He is now representing Mrs Russell-Taylor (on a pro-bono basis) and is urging the company to do the right thing by her and to undertake a root-and-branch review of the way other disabled customers are treated.
“Companies that are not confident around serving disabled customers frequently make mistakes – but this is an order of magnitude I have never encountered,” Mr Adams-Spink said.
“The letter written to Faith from the Chief Executive’s office is quite curt, mentions a few rather inadequate measures put in place by the company and then compounds the insulting and humiliating behaviour that she encountered by telling her that ‘we feel that our gesture by way of an apology, the £100 M&S gift voucher, flowers and box of biscuits already offered to Mrs Russell-Taylor demonstrates our regret about the poor service that she received’.”
Mrs Russell-Taylor has asked M&S simply to refund the Eurostar tickets and to pay for a short trip for her and her three daughters the next time that she visits London in the spring of 2015.
“American customers are, quite rightly, used to high standards of public service and considerable compensation when companies fall short of providing that,” said Mr Adams-Spink. “What Faith Russell-Taylor is asking for is minimal compared with the sort of awards that an American court could reasonably be expected to make.”
Mrs Russell-Taylor says that unless the company meets her representative and engages in meaningful dialogue, with a view to bringing the whole sorry episode to a satisfactory conclusion, she will have little option but to start an online petition, demonstrate outside the Marble Arch store and take legal advice.