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Man with disability feels 'belittled' after Canada's Wonderland denies him access to all its rides

Ahmad El Nasser was looking forward to a visit to Canada’s Wonderland with his niece, but when he was denied access to all the rides because he is a paraplegic, he felt "belittled" and discriminated against. In a statement, Canada's Wonderland says the safety of guests is its "highest priority."

Guests' safety is amusement park's highest priority, Canada's Wonderland says

Ahmad El Nasser and his niece at Canada's Wonderland on July 19. El Nasser was denied access to all the rides at the park because of his disability, despite having full upper body control and the ability to transfer from his wheelchair to other locations. (Submitted by Ahmad El Nasser)

Ahmad El Nasser was looking forward to a visit to Canada's Wonderland with his niece, but when they got there, he found out he wouldn't be able to go on any of the rides due to his disability. 

"When I was denied access. I kind of felt belittled. I felt a little bit humiliated," El Nasser, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury, told CBC News. 

"Being able to ride on these rides is not the big deal; the big deal is seeing my niece upset."

When El Nasser arrived at the park on July 19 he was given a "boarding pass," which allows guests with mobility restrictions or cognitive impairment to get on attractions at specified times via the alternate access entrance without having to be in lineups. 

Then, El Nasser said he was asked a series of questions, such as "Can you transfer?" That means moving from a wheelchair to other locations — something he is able to do. 

Ahmad El Nasser is paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident 10 years ago. He uses a wheelchair but says he is still very active and outgoing. He is seen on the left with his nephew in France. (Submitted by Ahmad El Nasser)

"I have full, complete upper body control ... I can transfer. I can get on beds. I can get in my car. I can get in rides, no problem," he said. 

"I answered all of them as best I could." 

But the rider access form El Nasser received said he would not be allowed to go on any rides in the park and when he asked why, staff said it was due to manufacturers' liability.

"I couldn't even get on little kiddy rides," he said. 

"So it pretty much had nothing to do with my physical capabilities, whether I can transfer, whether I can do this or that. It was, 'Hey, we don't want to get sued, so you can't go on.'" 

Safety is 'first priority,' Canada's Wonderland says

In a statement, Canada's Wonderland said it is committed to giving all guests with disabilities the same opportunity to enjoy and benefit from their services and attractions in a similar way as other guests.

"The ride admission policy at Canada's Wonderland is developed in consultation with industry experts and based on the safety recommendations of the ride manufacturers," the amusement park's management said in a statement.

"The safety of our guests and associates is our first priority and we reserve the right to make the final decision regarding the eligibility of a rider to endure the dynamics of a ride without risk of injury to themselves or other riders."

The company said it is equally committed to providing accommodations to people with disabilities.

El Nasser calls experience 'discriminatory'

El Nasser, whose injury is the result of a motorcycle accident about a decade ago, was refunded the money for his park pass. He said the experience felt discriminatory.

"Nobody really took the time on their end to understand each [of our] individual needs ... I felt it was easier for them to just put us all in one bag and say, 'This is the no section.'"

Laverne Jacobs, a faculty of law professor at the University of Windsor, said when El Nasser paid his admission fee for the park, he entered a contract that gives him the right to be accommodated to the point of undue hardship under Ontario's Human Rights Code.

"What that means is that the park not only should be asking questions about what he can do, but should be trying to use that information in order to accommodate him to make sure that they can help to support and enable him to participate in the activities," Jacobs said. 

Jacobs says safety is a factor in this case but says the park's choice of contract may have allowed it to avoid having to deal with accommodations.

"It seems that [the park] wanted to enter into a contract that says we don't want to take on any risk of an accident whatsoever ... the very problematic piece of this, though, is that in order to avoid all risk, they've essentially categorically excluded individuals with particular disabilities."

David Lepofsky, the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, says service providers like Canada's Wonderland have a duty to accommodate customers with disabilities. 

"If the individual can make an informed decision for themselves that they want to assume that risk, then it's not for Canada's Wonderland to unilaterally make that decision for them," he said.

Canada's Wonderland does have a guest assistance guide, but Lepofsky says individuals with disabilities need to be dealt with case-by-case. 

"Canada's Wonderland has a duty to investigate solutions," he said. 

"Including investigating it with the individual and find out if other amusement parks have allowed something similar before they could just slam the door on this individual."

A petition launched by El Nasser's sister is calling for an end to the exclusion of paraplegics and quadriplegics from rides at the park. It has since garnered hundreds of signatures. El Nasser said he hopes shedding light on this will spark some action. 

"What I would like to see changed is for people with disabilities to have that confidence to know that [the park is] doing more and they're treating us with respect individually, that they want to let us ride."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Cheung is a writer and producer at CBC Vancouver. Have a news tip? Email jessica.cheung@cbc.ca

With files from Dalia Ashry

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