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Disabled girl barred from theme park rides

The 8-year-old athlete was denied access to even kiddy rides at Busch Gardens.

By DEMORRIS LEE
Published July 20, 2005


[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Jessica Rogers, 8, sports a sign in protest of Busch Gardens on the back of her wheelchair Tuesday.

TAMPA - Jessica Rogers plunged into an Olympic-sized pool and swam the 25-meter breast stroke this week at the National Junior Disability Championships in Tampa.

But Monday afternoon, the 8-year-old athlete was denied access to three Busch Gardens rides, including the 6-inch-deep kiddy water rapids.

Ride attendants took one look at the little girl with no legs, called their managers and turned her away, not wanting to be responsible.

"You got to be kidding," said her mother, Phyllis Rogers. "This kid jumps off diving boards."

When Jessica returned to the games Tuesday, her wheelchair carried a sign asking fellow athletes to boycott Busch Gardens.

"Everybody else got to ride, but I couldn't just because I don't have legs," she said. "I couldn't even get on a kiddy ride."

Jessica, from Springfield, Va., was born with lumbosacral agenesis, a rare condition that stunted the growth of her spinal cord and left her with undeveloped legs, later amputated.

The games, now in their 22nd year, draw athletes ages 7 to 21 from across the United States with physical disabilities, including spina bifida, cerebral palsy, amputations, visual impairments and brittle bones. They compete at track and field, pentathlon, swimming, archery, table tennis, basketball and weight lifting.

The competition travels to a new city each year. This year, it's based at the University of South Florida and the New Tampa YMCA.

In Tampa with four of her seven adopted children, all of whom have disabilities, Phyllis Rogers, a single mother, hoped to turn the trip into a vacation, including the visit to Busch Gardens. The other three children with her are hearing-impaired; only Jessica uses a wheelchair.

Jessica first tried to board the Riffle Rapids, a gentle, circular water ride for very young children in the Land of Dragons and was turned away. She got the same response at the Stanley Falls Log Flume and then at the Congo River Rapids.

The final straw came when her family tried to board an amusement park train. They walked to an area designated for riders in wheelchairs.

"The attendant said he wasn't loading from that end and that we had to go to the other side," Phyllis Rogers said. "By that time, I was like, I'm done. I had walked around the park for hours in the heat, the kids had not rode anything."

Rogers took her family and left the park.

She spoke with Busch Gardens officials, who refunded all ticket costs.

"You do things spontaneously as a family, and things usually work out," said Rogers. "But this time, it was like a full slap in the face because in spite of how unlimitless she is, she encounters the limitations that others impose on her and sometimes there's just no getting around it."

Gerard Hoeppner, Busch Gardens' communications director, said it was a matter of safety.

Jessica was denied access, he said, because makers of the Riffle Rapids and the Stanley Falls Log Flume recommend that riders have at least one bracing lower extremity. The Congo River Rapids maker recommends three bracing extremities, including arms.

Prosthetics can be considered bracing extremities, but Jessica had left her artificial legs at home.

"If the manufacturer's guideline states that a functioning bracing leg be required, we follow that," Hoeppner said. "We do follow their guidelines because they designed them (the rides) for the human body to ride them."

Height restrictions also apply on the Log Flume and Congo River Rapids, but not with an accompanying adult.

"Our goal is to allow our guest to enjoy the park to the maximum extent possible," Hoeppner said. "We try to practice a ride of admission, not the ride of restriction mind-set."

Fellow athlete Doug Forbis, 18, was surprised at the reaction that Jessica received at Busch Gardens. The sophomore at the University of Illinois has the same condition and visits theme parks often, he said.

"I went to Universal (Studios) last December and there was only one ride that I couldn't do, and that was because my wheelchair is custom-made," said Forbis, who hopes to race the 100 meters in the 2008 Paralympic Games.

"I understand the roller coasters, but when you can't ride a kiddy ride that only has six inches of water, that's kind of stupid. The girl is an athlete and a swimmer. The kiddy ride, that was a bit much."

He recalls having similar problems at Jessica's age.

"My parents tried to take me to Dollywood and they told me that I couldn't ride anything," Forbis said.

At Universal Orlando, workers assess double amputees on a case-by-case basis, depending whether a sufficient portion of the lower body is present to make the guest safe on the ride, said spokeswoman Cindy Gordon.

The Busch Gardens experience reminds Phyllis Rogers to plan ahead.

On Tuesday, she checked out Adventure Island and said she was assured that her daughter would face no roadblocks.

So, on Thursday, Jessica will use her hands to walk up the steps at Adventure Island. At times, her mother might carry her.

Jessica is excited at the prospect of jumping off a rock cliff.

"She's an 8-year-old," Rogers said. "She can do almost everything that any other 8-year-old does.

"I don't think of Jessica as being limited."

Times staff writers Graham Brink and Stephanie Hayes contributed to this report.

Demorris Lee can be reached at 813-269-5312 or dalee@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 20, 2005, 00:58:13]


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