A family who say they were discriminated against during a theme park holiday are hoping their legal case will strengthen the rights of other disabled people to demand “reasonable adjustments” from service-providers.
The case, being brought on behalf of 13-year-old Melissa Edwards, should clarify how much information a service-provider needs to be given before they should realise they are under an obligation to provide a reasonable adjustment for a disabled customer.
Paul and Belinda Edwards, from Kilmarnock, Scotland, had been planning to enjoy lunch with their four children at The Coach House, a pub run by the Flamingo Land theme park in Yorkshire, where they were spending a week’s holiday last summer.
One of their daughters, Melissa, who has Down’s syndrome and autism, has problems with sensory overload and struggles to cope with crowded situations, so they chose to sit at a picnic table a few feet outside the restaurant’s own seating area.
Despite both Belinda and Paul explaining that they had two disabled children, a member of bar staff and the pub manager both refused them permission to eat their food at the picnic table.
Paul Edwards, who is partially-sighted and uses a guide dog, lodged a complaint with Flamingo Land, but when the company that runs the park refused to apologise, he decided to launch a legal claim under the Equality Act for its failure to make a reasonable adjustment.
He said: “We were just asking for a very modest, minor, reasonable adjustment, that didn’t have to cost anyone anything. We weren’t asking for the earth.”
He said the company’s refusal to settle the case was “absolutely bizarre”, particularly because he had said he would settle for an apology and £150 compensation to give to a local charity.
Edwards said: “It was an emotional roller-coaster from anger to frustration to just downright, fundamental sadness that someone could treat a group of disabled people in such complicating, challenging situations so inhumanly, and be so obstructive and ignorant.”
He said he hoped a legal victory would help other disabled people. “There is so much misunderstanding of people with hidden impairments, so much stigma and prejudice. It is important that these things come out in the open.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which is supporting the appeal, said The Coach House “should have made further enquiries of the family once they knew that the reason they could not move table related to disability”.
An EHRC spokesman said: “Had they done so they would have been given sufficient information to consider reasonable adjustments for each of the family members.
“They did not get that far because the manager simply closed the conversation down and refused to serve them unless they moved.”
Although Carlisle county court turned down claims of disability discrimination from Paul and his daughter Isla, who has cystic fibrosis, it awarded Melissa £4,000 damages.
But that ruling was overturned, and the case will now be heard by the Court of Appeal later this year.
Chris Fry, managing director of Unity Law, the solicitors representing the family, said: “We anticipate that this appeal case will set a new legal precedent as to the level of knowledge required by a service provider before they become obliged to make a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to accommodate their disabled customer.”
The EHRC spokesman said the appeal was also an opportunity “to make a wider point about the need to treat disabled people with dignity and respect”.
He said that a theme park was “just the sort of environment where supportive treatment would be expected”.
Flamingo Land has so far failed to comment.
28 February 2013