Aquarium Delirium

As a blind person it is never easy to visit a tourist attraction and enjoy it to its full. This is obviously even harder when the place is bustling with other frenzied visitors during the peak season. In my experience, the worst thing however is for staff members to have absolutely no training in how to interact with a blind visitor. This was unfortunately the case in my interaction and visit to the Two Oceans Aquarium.

I was excited to have my sister-in-law and her husband visit along with their daughter, my 2 year old niece. I set up an agenda and scheduled visits to many of the highlights and tourist hot spots that the mother city has on offer. I was well aware that during this peak and crazy holiday time, everything would be really busy and manic. I was prepared for the worst. The crazy season is not impossible, just a little more of a challenge than usual. I was up for the challenge. After all, South Africa has recently run a big advertising campaign promoting itself as an accessible destination for visually impaired visitors. I was more than willing to put it to the test.

From visiting the crowded beaches to the penguin colony at Betty’s Bay, from the shops and markets scattered around the Western Cape, I was very impressed. Staff everywhere were kind and courteous, always making me feel comfortable and safe. Then we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and everything went balls up. Not because of the selfie snapping crowds, not because of the wild children running amok, not because of the access, but because of the poorly trained and rude staff.

It is almost as if they did not prepared to deal with a blind person and would have rather been at home watching the television or sleeping. Very disappointing.

From the first contact by email asking when the best time to visit is and informing the aquarium that I would be blogging about my visit, to the actual visit, the interactions were challenging.

My email enquiry was to ask whether they charged for a blind visitor. Yes, they do. This is unusual as I obviously cannot see the exhibits. I was however told that my guide, aka wife, would not be charged. So I booked three tickets for the two visitors and myself and left the booking for my wife and niece out (children under 4 years old are free). On the 28th of December, we, informed by the recommendations in the correspondence we had had, arrived in the late afternoon.

It was crazy busy and perhaps would have been easier had we come first thing in the morning, as per my original idea. This was a question I had asked the recipient of the email, but she had said that afternoons were better. As I said, the crowds were not the problem anyway, this was expected.

At the door the staff member told me that I was misinformed and that neither my wife nor I needed to buy a ticket. Well, she actually told this to my wife as she refused to speak to me, commenting “He can’t see anything anyway”. It was as if I was not there in fact. I inquired about a refund for the one extra ticket we had paid for and she just brushed it off and ignored me while saying to my wife that there was nothing she could do as they do not refund online tickets. Like water off a ducks back she just refused to deal with us. Even leaving us standing at the counter while she disappeared for a long time to go and deal with a different issue that another client was having.

At the gate we were shoved through like cattle coming off a truck at a slaughter house. The lady that had to stamp my arm, did not speak to me but grabbed my hand and hit it a few times in the way that I imagine a cow would be branded before shoving me and my visitors through the door and turning her back on us.

Into the flow of visitors we moved feeling rattled and overwhelmed.

I asked my family to get me to a place to sit out the crowds where I could wait while they wondered around. The predator tank would be perfect. No wait, this was not open. Unusual as it is peak season? I was informed that their was a sign at the front door informing the patrons of this. But perhaps this was just a maintenance issue and not poor communication?

Eventually a sticky seat was found and I sat to catch my breath. The noises and smells were overwhelming and unpleasant, but hey I was there for my niece and would just bite my lip and chill for a couple hours while she was shown around by her folks. My wife bought me a disturbingly sweet and not very icy slushy. I folded up my white mobility stick and sat to wait. Then someone walked right into me. Guess what? It was a staff member. Sigh.

After a few minutes more we just got up and left. Not without more obstacles and rude inconsiderate staff avoiding us en route to the door that is.

My visit to the Two Oceans Aquarium was an overwhelming and disturbing low point of an otherwise great holiday with my family. The sad part is that the crowds were not the issue, the hectic traffic and tight parking was not an issue, the loud noises and overwhelming odour were not an issue either. This was all expected. The problem was the staff and their total lack of competence when dealing with a blind visitor. A little accessibility training would have gone so far to make this experience an enjoyable one. I put it down to miss management. Unfortunately, at this stage, I would not recommend the aquarium as a spot to visit for a visually impaired person. They don’t care about the business we bring (I had still paid R405 for my family to enter). Never mind the 285 million blind visitors they are inaccessible to, their families and friends coming along with them are obviously also not important.

Next time, I will try a different attraction and let’s hope that the staff are a little more aware. My recent TEDx talk is all about the challenges of sight loss and how, in a accessible world, a #BlindManCan do anything that a sighted person is able to. Well, the Two Oceans Aquarium is not part of this accessible world.

#Accessible #Blind #BlindScooterGuy #BlindManCan

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2 thoughts on “Aquarium Delirium

  1. Dear Chris

    We would like to apologise uncategorically for the poor service you experienced at the Two Oceans Aquarium.

    We’ve hosted blind visitors before – including a blind scuba diver! –with great success. We are able to create various interactive experiences and we have fun new ways for the visually impaired to experience our oceans. When we are well prepared, we are able to offer a world-class, personalised experience of this kind.

    This time around, however, it seems that a number of things went wrong before and during your visit – testament to the extremely busy time of year here at the Aquarium. We apologise for the breakdown in communication on our side. We would love to host you again when it’s much quieter, when a dedicated staff member can give you a personal tour around the Aquarium, as we usually do for visitors with visual or other impairments.

    Please allow us to walk through your issues step by step and account for each.

    “It is almost as if they did not prepared to deal with a blind person and would have rather been at home watching the television or sleeping. Very disappointing.”

    That is indeed very disappointing, and it is not the kind of experience we wish for our visitors. While it is certainly not an excuse, the vast majority of our front of house staff members are brand new (we hire extra staff during these peak times). Your comments have certainly alerted us to the fact that much training is still needed – both in terms of working with a blind visitor but also to exhibit a better, more enthusiastic and helpful attitude in general.

    To this end, we will be screening your inspirational TEDx talk to our staff, and would also like to engage you further regarding a possible talk for our staff in the New Year, once everything here has quieted down a bit. Would you be interested in or willing to assist us in this way?

    “On the 28th of December, we, informed by the recommendations in the correspondence we had had, arrived in the late afternoon.”

    Could you share with us what time you arrived please? Late afternoons – from about 4/5pm – usually are much, much better than the mornings. There is already a queue at 9am, when we open. For this reason we have implemented extended hours during the festive season period.

    “At the door the staff member told me that I was misinformed and that neither my wife nor I needed to buy a ticket.”

    Incorrect information was given to you at this point. As per your email correspondence with us prior to the visit, yourself would pay for an adult ticket, but your guide (your wife) would not be charged.

    Did you by any chance ask or get the name of this staff member? He or she gave you incorrect information, and we would like to be able to follow up with the person in question.

    “Well, she actually told this to my wife as she refused to speak to me, commenting “He can’t see anything anyway”. It was as if I was not there in fact.”

    This is unacceptable behaviour from our staff. On behalf of the company we would like to extend our sincerest apology for this incident. We will definitely pursue this incident internally and hold those involved, accountable.

    “I inquired about a refund for the one extra ticket we had paid for and she just brushed it off and ignored me while saying to my wife that there was nothing she could do as they do not refund online tickets.”

    It is true that our tickets are non-refundable. However, as per your email correspondence – you yourself would pay but your guide, your wife, would not – you purchased the correct number of tickets.

    “At the gate we were shoved through like cattle coming off a truck at a slaughter house. The lady that had to stamp my arm, did not speak to me but grabbed my hand and hit it a few times in the way that I imagine a cow would be branded before shoving me and my visitors through the door and turning her back on us.”

    This is unacceptable behaviour on our part. It is possible that the queue was extremely busy both in front of and behind you at this time, with many impatient people pushing from both sides. This can lead to rushed service and atmosphere at the turnstile as our staff members attempt to create as consistent a flow as possible at the turnstile area. Again, that is not an excuse, and we will be pursuing this matter further internally.

    “The predator tank would be perfect. No wait, this was not open. Unusual as it is peak season? I was informed that their was a sign at the front door informing the patrons of this. But perhaps this was just a maintenance issue and not poor communication?”

    The predator exhibit has been closed for upgrades and much-needed maintenance since June 2016. This has been communicated extensively in mainstream media: on the news, in newspapers and magazines, on radio etc. This is disclosed on the home page of our website, as well as on our social media platforms and newsletters. There are also several signs leading up to the ticket office. We apologise that the message did not reach you through these channels.

    “Eventually a sticky seat was found and I sat to catch my breath. The noises and smells were overwhelming and unpleasant, but hey I was there for my niece and would just bite my lip and chill for a couple hours while she was shown around by her folks. My wife bought me a disturbingly sweet and not very icy slushy. I folded up my white mobility stick and sat to wait.”

    Can you let is know where you were sitting? The auditorium space at the closed-for-maintenance predator exhibit has been transformed into a cool, quiet space where visitors can sit on pillows.

    “Then someone walked right into me. Guess what? It was a staff member. Sigh.”

    Again, this is unacceptable. We hope you received an apology from this staff member? If not, please let us know – and if, by any chance, you have a name, that would be hugely helpful.

    “A little accessibility training would have gone so far to make this experience an enjoyable one.”

    You are 100% correct – thanks to your detailed feedback we are now acutely aware of the lack of training in this regard.

    Thank you for making us aware of this urgent issue; we shall be addressing it with our entire staff contingent. As stated earlier, we would love to engage our staff around this issue with a talk or presentation at one of our general staff meetings in the new year. We can chat further should you be interested!

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    1. Firstly, let me thank you for responding. This goes a long way to making amends and will hopefully lead to more awareness from your staff when it comes to dealing with a visually impaired person.

      I just want to also make it very clear that I am not looking for any freebies or refunds, etc. I was more than happy to pay and follow the rules. As a disabled person, I never expect special treatment, just fare and equal treatment and access.

      The bad days happenings could have been totally avoided if your staff were just more prepared to communicate properly with me.

      I do find it a little ironic and wrong that you charge a blind visitor and not their guide when it is the visually impaired person that cannot actually see the exhibits. This is actually exactly what the lady at the ticket stall said, albeit in not very pleasant words. Across the globe blind visitors are waived of an entrance fee and the guiding person, who is still able to enjoy the experience, is charged. Yes, I know this works out to exactly the same charge, it just makes much more sense that way? This obviously needs to be managed differently when dealing with wheelchair bound patrons, etc. Again, the cost of the tickets was not the issue. The way it was handled was however embarrassing for me and made me feel like a fool rather than just a blind person trying to join in with their family’s outing. Unfortunately, I did not get the name of the staff member at the Helpdesk.

      As for the lady managing the stamping of hands, this was around 3h15 as we entered. I can assure you that there were no other patrons directly in front or pushing up behind us. This was simply a person who was unaware and not trained properly in how to deal with a disabled visitor.

      The crowds were expected and yes were in a frenzy. We expected this and that is why I chose to just get inside and find a nice calm and clean place to sit while the others explored. Perhaps the staff could have taken a moment to inform us that there was such a place, as you indicated there is at the auditorium area where the pillows are positioned and people can rest.

      I found a seat at the I&J exhibit and don’t know names of any particular staff member that acted so badly. We were in the aquarium for only a few minutes and then just left as I was furious at the way I was made to feel. Again, a little more or perhaps better accessibility training for the staff would have gone a long way to alter our visit.

      I have such positive memories of my multiple visits to the Two Oceans Aquarium in my pre sight loss years and was excited and enthusiastic about visiting and experiencing the place with only the use of my other senses. Unfortunately the visit was traumatic and really unpleasant. Again, this was not because of the crowds. It was totally about the staff and the way they managed and handled my visitors and I.

      I have travelled by ocean and air, by road and rail. I have visited multiple tourist attractions and sites and written articles that have been shared around the globe by sight loss support agencies and travel and tourism publications. This is the first time that I truly felt that the place was inaccessible, purely due to the staff interaction.

      I try very hard as a blind person to rather than just be upset, to try and educate when people are so unaware. As there are 285 million blind people around the globe and more and more sightless visitors to South Africa every year, it would really be nice for one of my favourite places to become more aware and accessible to the blind.

      Up to the point of becoming a blind person myself, I do not recall ever meeting another blind person. I was just as unaware and would probably also have made the very mistakes that I today find so offensive. My job is therefore to educate and hopefully make a difference to the people that follow in my footsteps and still try live a normal and full life, despite their loss of vision.

      If you are going to take my advice and try educate your staff on this issue, then please take some time to also make them aware of the challenges of a blind person visiting with a sighted guide dog. Based on my experience, this would have been a total mess for both the visitor and their guide dog as I can only begin to imagine how the staff would have reacted if a blind person and a canine guide appeared at the ticket kiosk.

      Lastly, if I can ever assist by introducing staff members to a blind person and educating them on the challenges we have, then I would be open to discussing this.

      Thank you

      Like

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