Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Florida, teen born without hands says SeaWorld, Universal kept her off rides

From Orlando Sentinel in Florida:

Though she was born without hands, Katie Champagne does things many with two cannot. At age 17, she's a masterful equestrian and an aspiring artist and photographer.

That's why, when the tourist from Michigan was removed from a roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando this week — one she had been on before — it was beyond frustrating.

"It was humiliating," she said.

According to Champagne and her parents, the episode Thursday on SeaWorld's Kraken coaster wasn't the first time that she has been kept from enjoying a visit to a Central Florida theme park.

In December, Champagne, a self-described Harry Potter superfan, says she was removed from the line outside Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park.

In both cases, Champagne says, she was told that her disability prevented her from safely holding onto restraints during the ride.

But Katie and her parents say she's capable of that and much more. Now, the family is determined to change the way some theme parks approach the disabled.

When she arrived in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in December, "Me and my cousin were so excited to be there," Katie says. "We were taking pictures of everything."

"We were just flipping out, really," she said with a laugh Friday. "I mean, it was a little embarrassing."

They got into line for the main attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. But soon, Champagne and her parents say, they were approached by a park employee, who told Katie she couldn't ride. Her parents say they discussed the situation with several park officials and their tickets were refunded.

On Thursday, Katie was back in Orlando, this time at SeaWorld. She says she boarded the Kraken, but the ride didn't start. She could see workers discussing. She knew what was coming.

Katie was born without hands, and without her left arm almost to the elbow. Without the use of prosthetics, Katie is co-captain of a state runner-up high-school equestrian team. She can rope climb, draw and carve pumpkins, to give a few examples.

Her parents have a photo of her riding the Kraken in December. As far as the Champagnes are concerned, the park's inconsistently applied policies ruined their SeaWorld trip.

"You can't put a price on taking a day of someone's life and turning it into a bad experience," said her father, Lt. Col. Doug Champagne, an Air Force veteran who has served six tours in the Middle East.

In a statement, a spokesman for SeaWorld Orlando said that the park regrets "any inconvenience or embarrassment this incident may have caused for the Champagne family."

"Our policies regarding guests with disabilities were written in consultation with ride safety experts, ride design consultants and manufacturers of each of our attractions," spokesman Nick Gollattscheck said.

Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said the park doesn't generally discuss "specific guest situations."

"Our policies treat the safety of our guests as a top priority and reflect everything from our own best practices and years of experience in this area to manufacturer guidelines," he said.

James Barber, a member and past president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, said that it's important for theme parks to have specific rules and follow them.

He said making exceptions opens theme parks to liability and park-goers to danger. Safety rules, he says, "aren't just put there arbitrarily. They don't put those restrictions there to be mean."

Schroder said that, for "dynamic attractions," Universal guests "must be able to continuously grasp the shoulder restraint with at least one upper extremity."

In its statement, SeaWorld said a guest without hands cannot ride Kraken, "because the manufacturers guidelines require that a guest be able to grasp the pull-down harness with at least one hand."

Richard Bernstein, a blind Michigan attorney who represents clients in pro-bono federal disability suits, has been working with the Champagnes.

Bernstein says the requirement for Katie to grasp the harness "with at least one hand," rather than her arm, is an unnecessary distinction and possible violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It doesn't matter what you grasp it with," Bernstein said. "It just matters that you can grasp it. You're not saying, 'Can you do this?' You're saying, 'You have to do this this way.' "

Bernstein and the Champagnes have been in contact with the U.S. Department of Justice and say that they're hoping to initiate an investigation of the theme parks' policies regarding the disabled.

"This is not a civil lawsuit," said Doug Champagne, who spoke with the Sentinel on Friday during a break from a day at Disney's theme parks, where the family rode all of the roller coasters and had no issues. "This is to get a policy fixed."

Katie Champagne doesn't like to ask for help and doesn't consider herself to be handicapped. She does have one request: "Don't put me in a box."

"Don't judge somebody just because they don't have hands or something like that," she said. "We can do everything you can do."