Along for the Ride, by Matthew

IsabellaOur situation starts as most family holidays do… For some months we had meticulously planned how we would spend our time at Disneyland Paris for what would be this years ‘big holiday’. We’d been once before, the difference this time being that we were now a family of four, and that Isabella, our eldest child, would be old enough and tall enough to brave some of the more hair-raising rides; one in particular, Thunder Mountain. The holiday eventually came around and despite the cold weather and lack of sunshine, there was a lot of excitement within the family. That was until we got to what was supposed to be one of the highlights of the holiday, Thunder Mountain. We had avoided the ride for the first day while we took in many of the milder rides as a family of four, but on our second day, the time was finally right, as was the length of the queue. Our son William was spending time with his grandparents and my wife and I packed ourselves off to join the queue with a very excited and eager 5 year old. We were slightly nervous approaching the ride as we knew Isabella would only just scrape the 1.02m height limit, and as we got to the entrance to the ride, were not surprised to see her picked out from the line to check her height. With a thankful sigh, she eased over the limit by a good centimetre but unfortunately that proved to be only the start of the drama. As we moved to step back in line, the guard motioned for us to return. Curious, we all shuffled back only for a very unsympathetic, and untactful guard to say very clearly “she cannot go on this ride”. Enquiring why, we were bluntly told in an equally untactful manner that “she cannot go on this ride as she does not have two hands.” As you can imagine, none of us were prepared for this. Not prepared for the message that was delivered, not prepared for the way in which it was delivered, and certainly not for it to be so blunt in front of what is a very impressionable 5 year old girl. Despite our best efforts to demonstrate the obvious discrimination, we were bluntly informed that “you cannot hold on well enough if you do not have two hands”. Everything about this experience felt all of a sudden… wrong. We didn’t know Isabella would be born missing a hand and the majority of her forearm. But from the moment we found out, approximately one minute after she was born, we took the attitude that she would be just fine. As a result, we have raised Isabella to see herself as no different to any other child. Of course along the way there have been many questions, many points and stares, and lots of overly curious and blunt children asking too many probing questions of her. But, Isabella being independent and confident, took it all in her stride telling anyone who cared to ask politely, “I was born this way”. Having spent five years building Isabella’s confidence to tackle any problem she faced head on and that nothing she tried to do was impossible, it was all being very quickly undermined by someone poorly trained on the art of managing delicate conversations. Disney isn’t all at fault here. There is a process you have to follow in Disney that sees anyone with a disability evaluated at ‘City Hall’ and given special access to all the rides quicker than most. We did in fact eventually meet these staff and can say with reassurance that they are some of the most polite, articulate and friendly staff we have ever encountered. The problem is, to us, Isabella isn’t disabled. She doesn’t have a left hand or much of a forearm but she can do everything she’s ever set out to do. Including holding on to a ride where most people raise their arms anyway. So why would we even think to go to City Hall in the first place? Unfortunately the drama of the guard entrance continued with more guards saying equally blunt things to us, the parents, all the while ignoring the very person it all affected. Someone who could hear, understand, and feel every word they said about her. The resulting tears and questions were proof enough that she knew exactly what was going on. Our story isn’t all sad. We did get to ride Thunder Mountain. In fact, Isabella rode it four times in the end, each time with her hand and arm firmly placed in the air the whole way round, and a huge smile on her face. In fact, we as a family don’t have an issue with Disney at all. On returning to England, we wrote a letter of complaint to the park in an attempt to raise awareness of the lack of training that was all too apparent. We were pleasantly surprised to get a very personal and apologetic letter back in a very short time-frame, which went a long way to mend the upset at the time. The damage hasn’t been undone though, as we’ve faced a lot more questions from Isabella since being back from the holiday. She’s doubted herself more saying things like “I can’t do that Mummy, I don’t have two hands” always with a tear, and with less confidence than she had before. We’ll continue to build her back up. She’s a strong character and a very determined little girl. And as parents we’ll know for next time how theme parks prefer things to be played. It’s just disheartening that some staff don’t always have the compassion required for such sensitive matters. We hope that our experience might prompt theme park operators to focus their attention on the art of compassion as much as they do on health and safety.

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