Allison Foley and her husband have made a point to include their special-needs daughter, Emma, in as many everyday and family activities as they can.
Emma’s brain works just fine, but her body doesn’t.
Emma, 10, has Rett syndrome, a nervous-system disorder that leaves her unable to speak or use her hands. She has to use her eyes to communicate. She can take a few steps but her gait is unsteady.
Still, her parents have taken Emma skiing, riding dune buggies in the desert, and to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift concerts.
But something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store near their home in Orange, Calif., proved more difficult. Emma, who weighs 50 pounds and is a little more than 4 feet tall, outgrew the seat in the shopping cart where parents typically place their children.
The 5-foot-2-inch Foley, a doctor of internal medicine with St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, was left with tough choices: push Emma in her wheelchair while also pulling along a grocery cart; enlist her younger daughter, Abigail, 7, to push Emma in her chair; hire a babysitter; or shop at night when her husband could be home.
Foley didn’t like having to leave Emma out of the trip to the grocery store.
“This not only made me sad to exclude her from a normal, everyday activity,” she said, “but isolated her from the experiences every kid typically has.”
Then she stumbled upon a solution last year while looking at a Rett syndrome-related page on Facebook.
A woman in Birmingham, Ala., Drew Ann Long, also has a daughter with Rett syndrome and has designed a shopping cart that can accommodate someone with a disability weighing up to 300 pounds.
Long named it Caroline’s Cart, after her 13-year-old daughter.
Long said she had to deal with the same choices Foley was wrestling with.
“I thought, this is insane,” she said. “I sat down at my dining room table and designed what I thought would fit Caroline as she grew, and also a small adult.”
The sturdy plastic cart is designed with handles that swing open for easy access to a plastic seat facing the person pushing the cart. There’s a foot rest for the comfort of the rider, a stabilizer brake, and a five-point harness to keep the rider secure.
After research showed nobody was producing this type of shopping cart, Long’s next thought was, “Why isn’t this out there?”
But it took Long, a stay-at-home mom with three children, several years and an initial investment of about $10,000 to convince a major shopping cart manufacturer to take over production.
The same company that had turned Long down initially, North Carolina-based Technibilt, contacted her once they saw the growing demand for the carts that Long had contracted with a smaller manufacturer in 2012 to produce, she said.
The carts cost $850 each. A discount is offered if they are bought in bulk.
Caroline’s Cart is getting interest and orders from around the world, with about 250 to 300 carts purchased so far, Long said. She expects orders to pick up now that Technibilt came on board this past summer.
Grocery chains in the United States that have ordered a Caroline’s Cart for some of their stores include Whole Foods, Kroger, Food Lion and Publix.
The carts also have been endorsed by Easter Seals, the national organization that provides support and resources to people with disabilities.
“They love the cart so much that every Caroline’s Cart displays the Easter Seals lily,” Long said, referring to the organization’s logo.
Besides parents of special-needs children, Long said, the carts are used by families with teenage children who are autistic and by people with spouses who have Alzheimer’s.
After discovering Caroline’s Cart on Facebook, Foley approached the supermarket in Orange, Calif., where she likes to shop about a year ago to ask if they could purchase one. Nothing happened. She entertained the idea of paying for one of the carts out of her own pocket, but that never happened.
Then not long ago, she noticed some changes at the store, which she didn’t want to name, including new carts. She emailed the manager again about getting a Caroline’s Cart. She heard back the week of Thanksgiving that the special cart had arrived.
Foley said Emma had a ball when they went shopping that weekend after Thanksgiving: “She was just all grins.”
Now the dilemma that buying groceries once posed is more of a pleasure.
“I call it princess shopping,” Foley said. “It’s just like a dream. It’s so nice.”
But more than the pleasure of it is the practicality.
“It’s really about including her in an activity that a typical child would have,” Foley said.
Long already has begun working on legislators in Washington, D.C., to consider including the carts under the Americans With Disabilities Act, so stores would be required to have one available.
“The No. 1 question I get every day on our Facebook page is, ‘Why isn’t this at my store?’ ”