Carers left ‘humiliated’ by Fota Wildlife Park entry policy

Cork attraction says it ‘sincerely regrets any confusion or upset caused to visitors’

Giraffe at Fota Wildlife Park, which said it  sincerely regrets ‘any confusion or upset’ caused to visitors over its admission policy for carers.  Photograph: Darragh Kane

Giraffe at Fota Wildlife Park, which said it sincerely regrets ‘any confusion or upset’ caused to visitors over its admission policy for carers. Photograph: Darragh Kane

 

Parents of children with disabilities were left “embarrassed, upset and humiliated” after identification cards giving them access to Fota Wildlife Park were rejected by staff.

The cards permit free or reduced rate entry for at least one carer at multiple attractions nationally and internationally including Tayto Park, Dublin Zoo and Disneyland Paris. However, some parents who attempted to use the cards at the wildlife park in Cork encountered resistance.

Joanne Hegarty, who has a two-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome, said she felt as if she had to “turn the buggy around and show her” to prove her child had special needs after her carers card was refused by Fota.

“You don’t make up that your child has a disability,” she said. “Families with special needs have enough stress and don’t need hassle going to a wildlife park. It’s supposed to be a day out.”

Michele Hastings Slattery, who has a seven-year-old son with autism, highlighted her concerns through social media. She said it was difficult when a child had invisible needs.

“Autism is an invisible disability. Autism doesn’t have a look. We have to prepare the kids for these days out. A lot of them like structure and routine and having to go through this is embarrassing.”

Helen Kelleher, who has an 11-year-old son with Aspergers, said she was surprised when her carers card was refused. She was given a copy of the carers policy during her visit in July, which said the Irish Autism Action (IAA) card was accepted.

She said families with children on the autism spectrum are “dealing with a ticking time bomb”.

“Everything has to be so organised and controlled,” she explained. “You don’t want any delays, you just want to get in and out and enjoy your day.”

‘Frustrating’

Ber O’Connell who has two children with disabilities, faced similar issues “It’s frustrating to have someone question you and make you feel like you’re trying to be dishonest. I’m not going to be questioned and explain why my son and daughter are ‘different’ when I spend all my time and energy telling them that, despite their physical disability, they’re the same as everyone else.”

The “Carers Policy” on the Fota Wildlife Park website, which was removed after the issue was highlighted, stated that it would admit one accompanying carer free of charge with the following documents: “A GP letter or hospital consultant letter or HSE letter which confirms the visitor is unable to visit independently without the aid of a carer, proof of receipt of a carer’s allowance payment or a Public service free travel card for carers carried by the visitor.”

Catherine Cox, head of communications at Family Carers Ireland said it had approached Fota Wildlife Park in the past to accept their carers card.

“We felt that the criteria in their current policy would be difficult for some parents,” she said. She explained that a lot of parents would not be entitled to domiciliary care allowance and that for many families, obtaining a GP letter would be costly.

Sarah Lennon of Inclusion Ireland said addressing the cost of disability was an equality issue. “Disabled people tend to have lower incomes and have to spend more of that income to achieve the same quality of life as everybody else. Services that everyone uses can cost more for persons with disabilities including the cost of being accompanied by an assistant at concerts or events.”

In a statement, Fota Wildlife Park said: “In recent days, we have been alerted to issues some customers have experienced regarding our carers admission policy. We sincerely regret any confusion or upset caused to our visitors and we are taking positive steps to review and understand better what has taken place.”

The park said it had taken steps to simplify its special needs admissions policy, to better facilitate access for customers with special needs and address the issues raised.

“We have now introduced a discount of 50 per cent on the entry ticket for a child or adult with special needs. Their accompanying carer will receive entry free of charge, when they present a valid carers card. Full details are set out on our website www.fotawildlife.ie”.