17 Aug 2016

Slide fight over kids with disabilities

5:19 pm on 17 August 2016

A Northland amusement centre for children has offered to hold special sessions for all children with disabilities, after a row with the mother of a girl who cannot walk.

Whangarei Chipmunks owner Frank Caldwell, with the contentious slide.

Whangarei Chipmunks owner Frank Caldwell, with the contentious slide. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Other parents suggested boycotting Chipmunks in Whangarei after the woman posted on Facebook about her experience.

Jacquie Hita said she felt hurt and discriminated against, when owner Frank Caldwell ordered her husband off a popular bouncy slide, which their 7-year-old daughter Phoenix Tupe could not use without his help.

Ms Hita and Chris Tupe took their three children to Chipmunks on Sunday afternoon.

They said they had been there many times before and took Phoenix, their eldest daughter, on the huge inflatable slide.

Ms Hita said it was one of her daughter's favourite things, but she had to be helped up the ladder by her mother or father because her legs did not work.

Jackie Hita and her daughter Phoenix

Jackie Hita and her daughter Phoenix Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Ms Hita said the slide did have signs saying no adults could use it, but Chipmunks staff had in the past given the couple the go-ahead for one or the other to climb up and slide down with their daughter.

But on Sunday, for the first time, owner Frank Caldwell saw Phoenix and her father on the slide and ordered them off.

"He just said 'you shouldn't be on this slide, it's not for adults!', and he pointed to the signs on the slide that said 'No Adults Allowed'," Ms Hita said.

"We said 'no, no mate, she's got a disability and she can't walk so we take her up the slide'. But he just said 'I don't care if she can't walk, you shouldn't be on this bloody slide - it's not for adults'."

Mr Caldwell said he did not remember saying he did not care that Phoenix could not walk, but the giant inflatable slide was not designed for adult use and would hardly last a year if adults used it regularly.

He said the main reason for the rule was to protect children from injury.

"If there's a kid there [on the slide] and an adult comes down and hits it, or the kid comes down and runs into the adult, there's no give in a 70 kg adult compared to a child.

"And then the other parents would have all the right in the world to have a go at us for letting other adults on the slide."

But Ms Hita said Mr Caldwell's words struck a nerve and said she shouted at him before leaving, with her daughter in tears.

"I got hurt by the fact that he said he didn't care that she couldn't walk and he didn't try to understand where we were coming from as parents," she said.

"It wasn't the fact that I wanted him to feel sorry for my daughter ... but just to try to understand where we were coming from. I can put my hand on my heart and say I would have gladly listened to him if he had approached me differently but he didn't."

Ms Hita said she now regretted her outburst.

She said she did not want her children or anyone else's to miss out on the fun they had at Chipmunks.

But she rejected a peace-offering yesterday by Mr Caldwell to open up half an hour early occasionally for Phoenix's family so the 7-year-old could use the slide safely, with her parents' help.

Ms Hita said her child should not have to play alone, simply because she could not walk.

Mr Caldwell expanded his offer and told RNZ he was prepared to hold extra sessions for disabled children.

"I'm prepared to organise it so we can come in at 9am, not just for their child but for any other handicapped children," he said.

"From 9 to 9.30 they can use that slide with their parents taking them up and down, but at 9.30 the slide is out of bounds. "

Ms Hita said that was an offer she was prepared to accept.

"That is awesome. I am so proud of him for doing that," she said.

But disability advocates were less impressed with the potential happy ending.

BJ Clark, of CCS Disability Action, said it seemed inappropriate words were exchanged on both sides but Ms Hita's reaction was the more understandable .

"It is very hurtful because a lot of these parents face these sorts of comments far too often," he said.

"After a while, one gets a little fragile and certainly sometimes reacts in a way that he or she later regrets."

Mr Clark said holding separate sessions for children with disabilities might seem like a generous offer by the Chipmunks owner, and healthy and safety requirements would be weighing on his mind.

"But we advocate integration and inclusion, not seclusion or segregation," he said.

"Perhaps an access advisor for CCS Disability Action up north could provide some advice. It might be a matter of sitting down and having a think about this, once both parties have calmed down, and look for solutions. "

Mr Clark said ideally, Phoenix should be able to use the big bouncy slide in the rowdy company of other young Chipmunks regulars - with her parents' help.