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Disney Lawsuit: Frivolous Claims or Discrimination?

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disney 2Sixteen families with autistic children have filed a lawsuit against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The reaction online has been divisive, to say the least. Is this a frivolous lawsuit or is Disney discriminating against its disabled guests?

I have no desire to take my son to Disneyland.

Between driving 90 minutes each way, parking, paying a steep entrance fee, navigating crowds of little kids, and—most of all—waiting in line with a toddler with a limited attention span, there’s just too much room for error. These factors could easily ruin a whole trip.

That’s all because my son is 2. I often think that if he had special needs (it’s a scenario new parents play out a LOT), I wouldn’t have the courage to do a lot of things outside of our comfort zone—which is why I paid attention when Disney announced its new policy for disabled guests:

Instead of granting easier access (usually through an alternative entrance) to rides and attractions for disabled guests and their families, visitors will now receive a Disability Access Service Card with a photo ID. They can choose an attraction and are then given a scheduled return time—typically based on the current wait time.

On paper, it doesn’t sound so bad. In a family where any member has a disability, there’s still no waiting in long lines under the blazing sun. Those with the card can simply go to their preferred rides, sign up for a return time, get some food or find a less-crowded attraction, and then come back.

“Disability” could mean anything that makes it difficult or impossible to tolerate long waits in line, whether it’s physical or cognitive.

But then I thought about it and the whole plan seemed awfully disruptive. How would a child with autism react to being told to come back to a ride an hour later? How many snacks can you possibly eat in between rides?

Sixteen families have now filed suit against the Walt Disney Company, claiming the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act with its new policies for disabled guests.

The reactions online have been dramatic:

Rachel wrote on Facebook: “I have autism, and I don’t see why I or anyone else with a disability shouldn’t have to wait in line along with everybody else. The only types of conditions that should warrant this type of special treatment are things that make it difficult for people to stay on their feet for long periods of time.”

@UpandUpTravel, a dedicated Disney travel agency for families and groups with special needs and disabilities, tweeted when the Guest Disability Pass was first rolled out last October: 

Up and Up (2)

Daniel, a single father of a 10-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, wrote to us:

“As a concerned father, of course I tirelessly researched the new Disability Assistance Services and held high hopes that it would not negatively affect my son’s Disney experience. Following my research, I was so disheartened that I seriously considered the viability of continued Disney vacations considering my son’s condition and the limitations that it presents.”

Other comments, in this lengthy debate on the California-based Orange County Register, include everything from “Either deal with the wait or choose another form of entertainment that better suits your child” to “please stop comparing a physical disability with a mental disability.”

The lawsuit has been filed by families with autistic children, who maintain that the new policy discriminates against guests with cognitive and behavioral disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in public accommodations, which includes Walt Disney parks.

According to the lawsuit, “The disabled Plaintiffs, like other persons with cognitive impairments, are mentally and physically incapable of waiting for significant periods of time in a line or queue. The idle, unfocused state which necessarily results from standing in a queue causes persons on the autism spectrum, and other near-spectrum exhibitors, to over-stimulate, resulting in meltdown behaviors.”

The crux of the lawsuit is that Disney is not treating all guests with disabilities equally, which is illegal, according to the ADA.

The Tampa-based plaintiffs’ attorney Andy Dogali has said about the new policy, “One can only conclude that Disney sees deterring these families from visiting the parks as a benefit.”

According to a statement from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, “Disney Parks have an unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all our guests. We fully comply with all ADA requirements and believe the legal claims are without merit.”

The lawsuit describes several cases of children who previously visited Disney parks with no incidents of “meltdowns,” but had drastically different experiences under the new program. In one case “A.B.,” a 6-year-old child, “cannot be surrounded by large groups of people or crowds, so the concept of waiting in a crowded queue is appalling to [his mother] M.B. as it could lead to a meltdown. A.B….[he] lacks the capacity to comprehend the concept of going all the way to a ride and not riding it….A.B. cannot follow such logic and would melt down at the present deprivation without ever understanding the so-called future appointment.”

The basic concern is that many parents who had a positive experience with the old Guest Assistance Card are now afraid to try the new program, concerned that they’ll lose out on a substantial investment of money and time if it backfires on them.

“I would move heaven and earth in order to see my son smile,” writes Daniel. “Disney has let my son down by taking this path of least resistance. What an opportunity Disney has wasted by allowing their bottom line to dictate the extreme and unreasonable course of action they decided to pursue. Instead of exploring viable options which do exist, such as redefining the screening process for access to their Disability Assistance Card program, Disney just slashed and burned it due to negative press. So sad!”

What are your thoughts about Disney’s new policy? Sound off in our comments below.

For more information about Walt Disney’s Disability Pass, visit:

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com 

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