Under a new policy that went into effect on October 9, visitors can now request a Disability Access Service Card for someone with special needs who has difficulties waiting in lines. The holder of the card must have their photo taken. If a line at a ride is too long, visitors with the card can reserve a return time for the ride. A return time can be requested for only one ride at a time and the person holding the card must be among those returning for the ride at the designated time.
Under Disney’s previous disability policy, visitors could obtain a Guest Assistance Card that allowed anyone with it to go to the front of the line at an unlimited number of rides via separate entrances. According to the website MiceChat, more than 2,000 Guest Assistance Cards were issued on a busy day at both Disney’s California and Florida theme parks, meaning that they were given to 10 percent of visitors.
In explaining its reasons for changing its policy, Disney cited repeated instances of the old policy being “abused and exploited.” An egregious example was reported in May in the New York Post. Some wealthy parents (who did not have a child with disablities) from New York City were found to be hiring individuals with disabilities for $130 per hour to be “guides.”
Many families with autistic children or children with other disabilities have been grateful for Disney’s efforts to make its parks inclusive and accessible and have been disappointed about the changes in the policy, which is a bit more complicated. One problems I can see arising with the new policy is that some children may be frustrated to learn that there will be more steps involved before they can board a ride. One organization, GRASP, has made some suggestions about altering the Disability Access Service Card to accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum: might it be possible for some visitors to have “access to a favorite attraction multiple times in a row without having to obtain a return time”?
My own teenage autistic son Charlie does not care for large amusement parks, preferring smaller, local carnivals. Nonetheless, the controversy about Disney’s disability access policy has highlighted some concerns that a lot of families with children with disabilities, and persons with disabilities, have.
1. We need to push for more programs for individuals with disabilities.
The real issue highlighted by all the uproar about the Disney disability policy is an old one: there simply aren’t a lot of options for leisure activities and vacations for families with children with disabilities. There are only a very few summer camp programs (run by organizations like The Arc) that can accommodate my son, who also has intellectual disabilities — Disney’s previous disability policy was accordingly regarded as a real boon by many families. After school and weekend activities exist but are in short supply for him and other older kids and adults with disabilities.
2. We can’t rely on private companies to provide support for individuals with disabilities “out of their own good will.”
Disney seems to have good intentions with the new Disability Access Service Card. But the company’s handling of the whole issue of disability access shows why private companies can’t be the arbiters of disability access.
As under its previous disability access policy, Disney is not requiring that people provide a doctor’s note or other proof of a person’s disability to obtain a pass, due to “legal restrictions” about requesting such information. As a result, Disney is taking visitors at their own word. While it’s helpful for families with kids like Charlie not to have provide all that documentation, Disney’s policy contains a loophole that could still be open to misuse.
The overall problem is that it’s just not that clear what kinds of accommodations a large, for-profit amusement park should provide for visitors with a wide range of disabilities. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act describes the accommodations that public spaces and (in the case of new construction), commercial properties must provide. These include ramps, elevators and other facilities to allow access. But accommodations for those with “invisible disabilities” such as autism spectrum disorders can vary greatly depending on the individual.
3. We shouldn’t demonize the adult with disabilities who was hired by the wealthy family to accompany them to Disney.
Disney cannot have been too happy about the many reports of people abusing its disability access policy. While there was a lot of outcry about wealthy parents who would stoop to hiring an individual with a disability just to get ahead in a line, a separate issue to consider is why would a person end up agreeing to such employment? Was it because they simply could not find another job, or one that paid so well?
Along with more programs to provide leisure time and other activities for older children and adults with disabilities, we need to think about providing job opportunities and, even more, for work that draws on an individual’s unique abilities. How can we encourage private companies (yes, including the one mentioned throughout this post) to start and support training and hiring programs for individuals with disabilities?
Photo via Michael Kappel/Flickr