Eighteen-year-old Iona Wilkinson, a self-confessed theme parks superfan, has become the first disabled person to be officially recognised as an ambassador for the Access Card scheme.
College student Iona, who lives near Sheffield, has visual and mobility impairments and also lives with autism and dyspraxia which means that she needs an essential companion on a day out and requires accessibility adjustments such as shorter queues for theme park rides.
She applied for an Access Card a couple of years ago and says that it has given her far more independence and increased her enjoyment on a day out – safe in the knowledge that staff can instantly understand and meet her accessibility needs.
Iona spends many hours researching thrill-seeking rides and then visits theme parks across the UK regularly with friends and family.
She answered a call-out on social media from Nimbus Disability who run the Access Card to become an ambassador for the accessibility scheme and her introduction video was chosen above scores of other applicants.
Iona is now the official Access Card Ambassador for Theme Parks and she has helped launch the ambassador programme with a video filmed by Nimbus Disability at Merlin’s Alton Towers Resort to highlight how the Access Card has improved her enjoyment and experience at theme parks.
The Access Card has been developed by Nimbus Disability – the Derby-based social enterprise run by disabled people for disabled people.
The Access Card has been recognised with The Queen’s Award for Innovation and is now held by more than 300,000 people across the UK.
It is the first accessibility scheme of its type in the world – offering a universal and consistent way of disabled people evidencing and communicating their access requirements to providers quickly and discreetly.
Nimbus’ specialist team handle all applications for the Access Card so that disabled people only have to provide evidence and paperwork once.
The cardholders’ disability/impairment is then translated into symbols which are included on the physical card and registered on the Access Card bespoke software which works alongside a venue’s online booking system.
This means that, when disabled people book tickets online, the venue informed quickly and discreetly about the access requirements that individuals need from eligibility to essential companion tickets to the necessity for wheelchair-accessible facilities and much more.
This removes the need for disabled people to continually call ‘special’ booking lines’ and fill in ‘special’ booking forms or answer personal and invasive questions over the phone.
It is already widely recognised at the majority of the UK’s leisure and tourism venues with a large number allowing online integration and booking for disabled customers including Buckingham Palace, The NEC Resorts World Arena and Alton Towers as well as at venues in the USA, Europe and New Zealand.
Iona explained: “I love going to theme parks but I do need adjustments. Before I had the Access Card, we would have to turn up with a load of DLA, PIP and medical paperwork to prove that I need an essential companion and queue passes.
“You never really knew whether these would be available or whether the person on the desk would understand my disabilities. Furthermore, my dad often used to have to spend the day re-explaining what we needed which could be really stressful for us all.
“Now, we can book tickets in advance at venues such as Alton Towers, they immediately know my needs so we can just turn up and enjoy a fun day out.
“Having the Access Card has also made me realise that there are so many other places that I can use it from festivals to theatres so it is encouraging me to broaden my horizons.
“The Access Card has solidified the whole subject of accessibility. A person’s disability is not always obvious but, this way, it ensures that people who really need reasonable adjustments get them.
“It also takes the legwork out of accessibility for the providers such as theme park operators as they leave the system to the experts so it’s a win/win for everyone.
“I was dubious at first about whether the Access Card would work and would make a difference but it really has been a breath of fresh air and I would encourage anybody with access needs to apply for the card.”
“I am very proud to be the first ambassador for the Access Card and particularly to be focused on theme parks which are my passion
“I would love to work in accessibility as a job – perhaps bringing my lived experience to venues to help them make the adjustments needed to ensure everyone can enjoy a day out – regardless of their disability.”
Martin Austin MBE, managing director of Nimbus Disability, continued: “Ultimately our operating system lessens the administrative burden on disabled people at the same time as opening up equality of access to online ticketing solutions from West End theatres to theme parks.
“Iona has eloquently shown just why she is the perfect person to launch our ambassador programme.
“Through the ambassador programme, we want to empower our Access Card holders to highlight the benefits of the Access Card and give them a platform to share their lived experience with the growing number of providers and venues who work with us to improve accessibility for disabled people.”
Merlin’s Resort Theme Parks accessibility manager Kate McBirnie concluded: “We were delighted to welcome Nimbus Disability and Iona to Alton Towers to film this video.
“By working with Nimbus over the past two years, we have greatly improved the visitor experience for disabled people who now have a seamless and positive journey when booking tickets that reflect their individual accessibility requirements.
“It has also taken the pressure off team members at Alton Towers who can concentrate on providing a fantastic experience for guests – confident that the accessibility requirements have already been confirmed and validated by the Nimbus team.”