Your first trip to a Disney park is hard to forget. For me, it was churros and Magic Mountain. Maybe for you, it was Pirates of the Caribbean or the fireworks show. Whatever it is, there’s something magical about Disney, and the parent company works to keep it that way, as do all the cast members and personnel at the parks.
For decades, disabled people and their families have been enjoying that Disney magic with a friendly and welcoming accommodations policy, but last year, that changed. Now, families of disabled children are suing on the grounds that Disney is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act — and trying to push them out of the park.
It all started with a scandal last year claiming that families were abusing Disney’s generous accommodations policy, using the system to get nondisabled people onto rides earlier. Disney responded by creating the Disability Access Service Card, which allows people to receive a scheduled time to return to a ride based on the waiting time, rather than moving disabled people and their families to the front of the line as was the case in the past. Disney believes this meets ADA requirementss, accommodates disabled guests and makes the system harder to abuse.
Parents of disabled children feel otherwise, arguing that it doesn’t resolve many of the issues that make it difficult for them to go to amusement parks. For example, 19-year-old Amanda Smith has a mitochondrial disorder that causes, among other things, severe respiratory problems. She’s rarely well enough to leave hospital environments and life support, and when she is, she loves going to Disney parks. Under the old system, she could move through rides quickly and efficiently, spending her time at Disney having fun, rather than waiting, getting fatigued and having a health episode or being forced to leave early.
Under the new system, Amanda can’t do that. Last year, she collapsed and went into respiratory arrest in a Disney park just one day after the DAS Card was implemented.
She’s not the only disabled person who can’t get the full Disney experience under the new system. Many people have disabilities that are fatiguing, making it important for them to be able to budget their time effectively, which they can’t do if they have to wait. Others, like many children on the autism spectrum, have a very hard time with waiting in line, especially for those who want to be able to ride attractions repeatedly. Some get stressed out and unhappy, and turn to stimming to try to refocus themselves. Behaviors like flapping, making repetitive noises, or moving restlessly can be viewed negatively by other people in line, making disabled guests feel judged and unwelcome.
Parents claim the new system discriminates against disabled Disney guests, making them feel less comfortable at the park and making it more difficult to have family outings that include disabled people. Some are suggesting that Disney is trying to “cleanse its parks of what Disney views as the anti-Magic of such persons’ stimming, tics and meltdowns.” They want to see revisions to the access policy to make Disney parks and attractions safer and more fun for disabled people, who have been a valued part of the Disney family for so long.
The Walt Disney Company stands by the changes it has made and argues that it supports and will continue to support disabled visitors and their family members. This may be tested in court if the suit goes forward, and it should provide an important opportunity to discuss what truly inclusive access looks like.
Is Disney complying with the spirit of the ADA as well as the letter?
Photo credit: JD.