Now, aside from that sounding utterly ridiculous, you may immediately imagine these shoes to have been something along the lines of fancy light-up sneakers, decked out with cartoon characters and a noisemaker on them. But no.
These "squeaky" shoes were actually specially-made orthopedic shoes, which the young toddler needed to help her walk properly. (Doesn't that make the whole thing even sadder?)
According to her dad, Stephen Duke, 2-year-old Emma only started trying to walk at 23 months, which is much later than most kids. "So the orthopedist recommended special shoes to her for better ankle support," he told Good Morning America earlier this week. "The shoes squeak as an incentive when she walks heel to toe, so she'll hear it and know that she's walking properly."
But apparently, that little squeak was just too much for one Panera employee, who was approached by complaining customers and told the girl's mother, Catherine, that the tot would have to take her shoes off, or leave. (Yes, really.)
As you might imagine, the whole thing was pretty upsetting for the girl and her mother.
"It was very hurtful, and I left the store crying. Not a very good thing for a mom to feel like her child is being discriminated against," Catherine told WTOC.
News of the incident, which went down January 2, has since made headlines, and reached the ears of Panera's executive management—who were none too pleased.
The restaurant chain immediately contacted the Duke family to apologize, and even met with them to say they want to host a fundraiser night in honor of Emma, to benefit kids with disabilities just like hers.
They have also released the following statement:
As you would expect, Panera Bread does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The last thing we would want to do is make anyone feel unwelcome. Consistent with this system-wide policy, our franchisee met personally with Ms. Duke today to directly hear and address the concerns she has raised. We understand from our franchisee that Ms. Duke has been assured that she and her family are always welcome at Panera and her concerns have been addressed. All associates at this bakery-cafe will be receiving updated and ongoing customer relations training.