Thursday, 4 September 2014

Singled out in a theme park queue

I’ve rather lost my blogging mojo recently.  Between redundancy, taking on more consultancy than I can comfortably cope with, and the relentless search for another job, it’s just been firefighting.  Just as it was starting to look a bit desperate I finally I got a job, which I’m starting in a few days now.  Full-time, so - I know - scary.  But also exciting, and doing what I’ve longed to be doing for a while now.  So the summer holidays have been bittersweet, knowing that next year it will be very different.  And now big changes are afoot – K starting school and H moving up to middle school.  There’s been too much to blog to know how and where to start.  But last week something happened that I’m getting stuck on, and I’m hoping that by blogging about it I’ll find out what to do.  I apologise in advance for the rambling.

Last week was Katie’s 4th birthday and we went to a local themepark, which has a sub-themepark based around a popular children’s character (bear with me on this, I’m trying to anonymise things).  We have season tickets here that my mum has bought us as Christmas presents for the last two years, and the children know it inside out.  The older two would normally spend a trip completely focused on out scary-riding each other, but today everyone was on-message that it was Katie’s treat and she was calling the shots.  So obviously the sub-themepark it was.

Things were going well: we’d got there relatively early and managed to dodge some of the more horrendous queues.  But then K wanted to go on her favourite ride, which was already nurturing the wait from hell.  For the sake of making it visual, let’s call it The Giraffe ride.  What you do (after queuing) is ride around on a small giraffe set on a track, the giraffe rocking gently all the way.  I know.  We got warm doughnuts and caffeine to take the edge off the queue and amazingly managed to get through the next hour (no exaggeration) without too much chaos breaking out.  Or anyone dying of boredom.  Excitement was building as we got to the front.  Followed by the dampest of damp squibs.

As the kids lined up ready to claim their ‘giraffes’, the stallholder opened the gate and said, “I’m not sure she can go on,” pointing at Charlotte, my eldest.  Charlotte is 9, and tall for her age anyway.  I must have looked confused - because I certainly was.  He pointed to her little hand and mumbled something about it not being safe.  Charlotte, incidentally, was born without a left hand.  This, however, is very far down the list of distinguishable things about her.  Obviously I am biased, but to me she is beautiful, brave and astounding astute, the combination of all of Luna and Hermione’s best qualities.  Throw in a bit of Buffy too.  Anyway.  Taken aback and trying not to come across as some kind of gibbering idiot, I told him there was no safety issue.  Charlotte had been on it many, MANY times before, as indeed she had on every ride in the themepark, and no one had ever raised an eyebrow.  The one time I had thought another ride looked a little hairy I’d mentioned it to the stallholder who’d assured me that it was no risk whatsoever.  I was pretty calm in making these points, trying not to attract any more attention than necessary to a situation which was clearly mortifying for Charlotte.  But the stallholder just looked worried and said he’d have to check the safety rules.  He did this, and came back saying that The Rules stated that you needed to hold on with two hands.

I explained that Charlotte could do that perfectly fine – her little hand is very far from redundant, she has a wrist with lots of mobility, which she’d naturally use to grip onto the groove in the giraffe’s neck.  Without giving it a second thought, just like any other child would.  Besides, the ride is geared at MUCH younger children and height-based.  Katie’s had to ride on it on her own since she was three-and-a-half, and it is fair to say she is not totally reliable on the holding on tight front.  Indeed there is a camera half way around the ride that takes pictures which they later try to flog you, and which you’re encouraged to wave at.  The point I’ll eventually get to is that is that holding on with two hands is certainly not something that the ride is attempting to enforce in any way, and if there was the slightest risk then I suspect they would have installed seatbelts some time ago (as they do on many other rides).  But the stallholder just looked more worried and said he’d have to call for his manager.  Which he did, and for some inexplicable reason he was unable to get an answer there and then, and we had to sit out an excruciating ten more minutes for the (stepping up a gear now, to two) managers to arrive.

This is the bit that made me the most cross/upset/frustrated.  That my daughter was forced to stand there patiently, while some idiotic problem was resolved, enduring the humiliation of standing at the front of the queue while smaller children were waved past her.  People overhearing the exchange and suddenly looking at her differently.  This the bit that I think was particularly badly handled, and is no way to treat a child.   On the positive side, I am eternally grateful to the mother behind me who muttered as loudly as she was waved through about how ‘f’ing ridiculous,’ the whole thing was.  There are times when you just need someone to tell it how it is.

The managers eventually arrived, the stallholder spoke to them and they asked me what the issue seemed to be.  I replied I didn’t know.  We’d been coming on season tickets for two years, no issue had ever been raised before, which made it all the more mystifying that it had come up on one of the park’s most gentle rides.  Also - just plain rambling now - that the way they were dealing with this was completely inconsiderate of my daughter’s feelings.  Acting like she couldn't hear.  Somewhat pathetically I was nearly in tears at this point.  Meanwhile Charlotte looked stoic, or did a very good impression of it.  She does want to be an actress, after all.  Thankfully the managers looked embarrassed, and mumbled, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” and waved us through.

But of course it  was very far from fine.  I doubt if there was a split second of that ride which didn’t stick in Charlotte’s throat, and she was subdued for the rest of the day.  No-one wants to be looked at as the one that’s different.  She is such a capable, daredevil child, she takes on so much physically that I never could – she rode a bike without stabilisers before she started school, is the most graceful swimmer I’ve ever seen; she surfs, cartwheels and backflips.  It was demeaning for her to have to go through that nonsense, and to have no voice.

The more I think about it, the more utterly convinced I am that there was no safety issue at stake and that the stallholder was just inexperienced and covering his back.  I don’t even really blame him so much as the managers who didn’t shut the issue down as soon as he phoned them.  The waiting was the soul-destroying bit.  I lay awake for several nights afterwards feeling too angry and disempowered to do anything.

Now obviously I have some perspective, I know that in the scheme of things this is a little problem, and Charlotte’s stoicism is some reflection of the amount of times she copes with this kind of reaction in various forms.  But that doesn’t make it ok, and here’s what I need help on. 

I want to write a letter that will have an impact.  I’m pretty sure that will happen if I present the facts as I am doing now is that I’ll get a standard health-and-safety line thrown back at me.  And there will have been no point ever having written it.  And I don't accept that line, it's a cop-out.  The themepark is a place which has built itself up as being disability-friendly (not that Charlotte sees herself as disabled, but that’s the point - this man clearly did).  If things stay the same and this happens to someone else, who knows what the lasting effects of all these cumulative disrespects will be? Here’s what I think needs to happen

-          The ‘rules’ that the stallholder consulted are clearly badly worded, and need rewriting to reflect people’s differences and their different strategies for personal safety.
-          If staff don’t feel confident applying safety rules and are doing so in a way that is misguided, then whatever disability awareness training goes on is clearly not working, and needs to be changed.

Is this really so unreasonable?  The thing is how can I get this across, without sounding aggressive? Because I do feel really strongly about this and will go to the press to campaign if necessary.  But anger is never helpful in getting people to see things from your point of view.  How can I make something positive out of this?  

And thank-you - if you’ve got to the end of this, you are amazing, and I really will hang off your every word of advice.

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