Most parents’ greatest joy is to see their children happy. For Sophie Figg, taking her wheelchair-using son Harrison to a U.K. theme park should have been a fun experience. Even though the toddler couldn’t get on as many rides as other children his age, he could still revel in the jovial atmosphere.
But their excursion to Gulliver’s Land in Milton Keynes on August 2, 2017, left Figg distressed, humiliated and angry. And it all happened because the theme park’s staff allegedly made an outlandish request of the young mother and her disabled son.
Figg gave birth to her son, Harrison Arthur David Wilcox, on May 25, 2014. The toddler has an extremely rare health condition called septo-optic dysplasia. A Facebook page called “Harrison’s Journey” documents his young life and milestones in order to raise awareness of his condition.
Explaining his diagnosis to The Mirror, Figg said, “The septum in his brain is missing, his optic nerve is damaged so he is blind and dysplasia is [an abnormality in development]. He’ll always be dependent on a wheelchair and unable to walk.”
Still, that doesn’t deter the mom and hairstylist from showing her son a fun day out. Not only does he attend school, but the family also regularly goes to parks and swimming pools. And Harrison has even been on a European cruise vacation.
But their trip to Gulliver’s Land on August 2 did not result in the same happy memories. Figg, her sister and a friend, as well as her sister’s two children, all traveled to Milton Keynes for a day of fun. However, before they could even get through the gates, things went wrong.
According to the park’s website, all children under 90 centimeters (around 35 inches) can enter the park for free. Otherwise, tickets cost £16.95 (just under $23) per child. But Figg knew that her son was shorter than this measurement, meaning that he should have gotten into the park for free.
“He’s actually short for his age and has to have growth hormone injections,” Figg said. “He’s clearly under 90 centimeters. Harrison and my niece should have got in free… However, a young female staff member insisted that he must be measured.”
Not surprisingly, Figg was perplexed by this request, especially because her son was in his wheelchair and is physically unable to stand. “I told [the staff member] he can’t hold any weight in his legs, but she still insisted,” the 24-year-old said.
She claimed that she was then asked to prove that her son was actually disabled, which she took to mean showing a Blue Badge, a parking permit that entitles people with mobility problems to receive preferred parking. Figg said, “I know not all people with disabilities are in a wheelchair, but it’s common sense to see that if someone is in one, then they are disabled.”
Presumably, Figg was unable to produce such a badge, because the staff member purportedly refused to admit Harrison into the park. At that point, Figg said that a manager finally came to the park gate, but she sensed that he would be of no help to her cause either.
“The manager came out to speak to us, and you could tell straight away he had a chip on his shoulder. It was like we’d ruined his morning,” she said. “He said to me straight away, ‘I can tell he’s over 90 centimeters.’ [Harrison] had a blanket over his legs, and for all [the manager] knew he might not have had any.”
According to Figg, the manager then turned to her niece and said, “‘Well, she’s definitely over 90 centimeters.’ She’s actually at least 10 centimeters under that or we would have paid for her.” With a line of people waiting behind her, Figg felt the sting of embarrassment caused by Gulliver’s Land’s staff. “My son doesn’t really know what’s going on,” she said. “But I felt humiliated in front of everyone else.”
So Figg was forced to do something outrageous: stand up her disabled son so he could be measured from head to toe. “I had to pin Harrison against the wall myself to prove he was under 90 centimeters,” she told The Mirror. But, as she related to the Milton Keynes Citizen, her effort was still not good enough for the park employees. “They still didn’t seem satisfied because he couldn’t stand up all the way.”
She also explained to The Mirror that all she had wanted to do at that point was leave the park, but her sister and friend were allegedly denied a refund for the tickets they had already bought. They decided to stay because of that and because of their kids. “It would have been cruel to let them see the rides from outside then say we were going home,” said Figg.
Fortunately for Figg, the park’s area manager happened to be at Gulliver’s Land that day. And he said she and her son could get in for free after their ordeal, according to Figg. So they tried to make the best of the day after its horrible start. “We went on a couple of rides, but most of the time we just watched the rest of my family going on them,” she said.
Nevertheless, the entire experience left a bad taste in Figg’s mouth. “That afternoon when I got home, I felt more annoyed. I shouldn’t have had to even get him out of his wheelchair,” she said. In fact, she felt compelled to post on Facebook about her experience – and, as it turned out, other parents of disabled children had felt similarly singled out during their trips to the park, too.
Indeed, Figg also got unexpected support from those behind her in line as she struggled to get her son measured and into the park. In fact, one person had called the park’s head office to complain about what they saw.
With people backing her, Figg decided to take a stand: she started a petition Gulliver’s Land to review its staff training on how to treat customers with a disability. “This was never about the money,” she said. “It’s about how badly the whole situation was dealt with,” she said.
However, Gulliver’s Land questioned some of her claims. Later, they extended an offer to speak with her about ways that the park could improve the way special-needs patrons enjoy the park. Though Figg initially rejected their invitation, she reportedly reconsidered her chance to shape park policy and do just what her petition aimed to achieve: make Gulliver’s Land a better place for every single one of its future customers.