New Lawsuit Accuses Disney Parks of Discrimination Against Guests With Cognitive Impairments

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A group of guests have filed a lawsuit against Disneyland and Walt Disney World alleging the new Disabled Access System (DAS) violates the American with Disabilities Act, specifically for guests with cognitive impairments, such as autism. The main argument of the lawsuit is that prior to the new DAS system, Disney was much more accommodating allowing families to have wonderful experiences together. And because Disney had the knowledge to provide those accommodations then, to not provide them now is discriminatory. The lawsuit gives multiple examples of guests who are unable to comply with the new DAS process without risking a meltdown from the impaired individual.

As you might expect, the lawsuit systematically excludes evidence that doesn’t support its theory. For nearly everything it lists as examples of Disney’s bad behavior, I’ve read first hand accounts of the exact opposite behavior from Disney. But that’s how a lawsuit works.

Some of the facts in the lawsuit are incorrect or border on the incorrect. It mentions that a photo of the disabled guest is added to the DAS, but then states that it is related to the entry to the park, which it’s not. It’s related to making sure the person who is using the DAS is the disabled person, not someone who picked it up off the ground.

They also accuse Disney of sponsoring videos to make the ‘rented invalid’ problem seem worse than it was. I would like to see the evidence for that.

What is true, is that Disney changed their procedures and they are not as accommodating to those with cognitive impairments as they were in the old system. But it does not also follow that that change now places Disney outside the boundaries of the protections the ADA provides.

I guess that is now for the courts to decide.

I’m not sure this particular lawsuit was the best option. However, I have sympathy for these families. They had a good thing in the old system. I really don’t believe it was as burdensome as Disney’s drastic changes to the program made it seem. The 176-page lawsuit contains a number of stories told by these families, some of which are hard to read without feeling like the guest is being wronged.

But even at 176 pages, these experiences are a minority of guests who use the DAS experiences at Disney’s theme parks and probably even a minority of the experiences of those with cognitive impairments. One wonders why Disney hasn’t been able to work with such a small group of guests who clearly require accommodations beyond what the DAS program provide.

What are your thoughts on the lawsuit. Should Disney’s new DAS program be more accommodating to those with cognitive impairments?

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17 Responses to New Lawsuit Accuses Disney Parks of Discrimination Against Guests With Cognitive Impairments

  1. Nancy Nally says:

    I’m the mom of a 10 year old with autism, and a Disneyworld seasonal passholder. The new system is a NIGHTMARE for us. It’s barely a step better than what they offer the regular guests. Basically, we get a few extra fast passes.

    Autistic kids see something and they want to do it NOW. There’s no reasoning with a kid who is overstimulated and having a meltdown. It’s hard to keep a schedule with one of these kids – a bathroom trip can suddenly become a half hour ordeal, or lunch, or they see something they want to do and get distracted by the stage show or parade. They change their minds about what they want to do…on and on.

    Disney staff has been remarkably unsympathetic or helpful in response to complaints about the new system. I get told “if your child gets upset being told they can’t go on something the moment they see it, have a member of your party run ahead and get the fast pass so they don’t have to see it until they go on it.” Great, so what was supposed to be a “family” experience at the parks is supposed to be spent constantly splitting up so one of the parents can run frantically all over the park? Yeah, that is fun! And what part of the fact that an autistic kid can be hard to handle with BOTH parents in the park aren’t they getting – they want us to split up constantly so one parent has to handle the child alone half the time?

    The second flaw in their little solution is that running ahead to get a pass for something doesn’t solve that you’re constantly passing attractions as you walk in the park. What if we go to all the trouble to send one of us to get the pass for her to ride Pooh and then walk past Fantasmic on the way and suddenly she wants to see THAT? Their system requires us to plan and the whole point is that you can’t plan with these kids.

    I’m EXTREMELY angry about all of this. They had a problem and their solution was to throw their most vulnerable customers under the bus. They could have put effort into tracking down and policing the people who are fraudulently advertising their services as guides and abusing the system – instead, they just penalized all of us who are legitimately in bad situations and made it worse for us.

    • Jeff says:

      “It’s barely a step better than what they offer the regular guests.” Don’t you want to be treated as equally as possible compared to regular guests?

      “Basically, we get a few extra fast passes.” How is that a bad thing?

      “Autistic kids see something and they want to do it NOW.” That’s true of a lot of non-autistic kids too.

      You can’t avoid the reality that theme parks inherently contain visual stimuli and significant wait lines.

      • Ernie Delli Santi says:

        Jeff,

        The difference is that cognitively impaired children have a medically diagnosed condition that in a lot of ways forced them to do things in the way they must. Their minds are programmed that way and a break in that routine can be as devastating to that child as you can get. I do not have an autistic child, but a developmentally impaired one who has trouble understanding these things. He is seven and it is hard for my wife and I to calm him down together when he has a meltdown. Now imagine doing it with an autistic child by yourself who is 10,12,15 years old and strong who can not bring himself down. I agree that I think the lawsuit may be a bit premature. I think a sit down with Disney from Autistic groups to address the changes should have been the first move. I sympathize with these parents but also know Rome wasn’t built in a day. Its a new system that needs to be tweaked to make it the most accommodating for all of the guests.

      • Mandy says:

        Uh, yeah! A lot of kids want to do it NOW. I think people are looking to have a label for their children. So tired of it! Don’t like the new system? Then try other parks other than Disney!

    • Bailers says:

      I completely sympathize with you, having an autistic child must be very difficult. I don’t necessarily think anyone is trying to minimize the effects of autism, and as a die hard Disney fan I want every child to be able to experience the parks as much as possible to enjoy it like I do with my children.
      That said, you are talking about a small percentage of children that visit the parks on any given day, many of whom exhibit similar behavior to autistic children. In some cases, it is impossible to distinguish between autistic behavior and spoiled kid behavior. 99% of the park people won’t know the difference. They just see a kid throwing a tantrum.
      My first visit to WDW with my kids was on a Make a Wish trip. I know the looks you get when people see you getting in the back way, or jumping lines, with a perfectly healthy looking kid (and family). But I’m not completely sure what Disney is supposed to do about it. The reality is that the system was being gamed, and there was an obligation to do something about it. There are thousands of kids in a park in any given day. This is not an issue of handicapped that cannot go down stairs or through narrow que lines. This is not a M-A-W kid that is being given special access, almost like a celebrity would be given. It sounds cruel but the truth is that Disney is accommodating autistic kids if they are giving out extra benefits that the average paying customer cannot get. If that’s not enough, maybe Disney with its huge crowds and long lines isn’t the best place for kids with autism or other needs that prevent them from handling the situation. Disney World is not a right. There are many, many kids in this country that will never get to go to the Parks. Complaining that Disney is giving everything so that one person’s visit can be as uneventful as possible isn’t what the ADA is supposed to be about.

  2. Lisa says:

    I am not the parent of a disabled child, so I can not say that I know firsthand what it is like to be in that situation, but I do have an opinion as a frequent guest of the parks. Over the years, I have seen more and more people getting head of the line privileges for a wide variety of reasons. Waiting in line is a reality of visiting a theme park. You must wait in line for rides, at restaurants, to purchase merchandise, and sometimes even to use the restroom. I think that the cast members are doing the best they can to make the waiting bearable for everybody. It is unrealistic to expect to avoid waiting in a line because a child in your party will have a meltdown if he or she is forced to wait. Cognitive disabilities are very difficult to “prove”, and asking about the specifics of a person’s medical history and disability WOULD be a violation of his or her rights. Since everybody hates waiting in line, it’s very tempting to a lot of people to say that because the child has had a diagnosis of a disorder on the autism spectrum, ADHD, a sensory processing disorder, an anxiety disorder, a behavioral disorder, etc., the whole family for that child should be allowed to go right to the head of the line when there is a 90-minute wait for everyone else. That would not just be a few families per ride at any given time. That would be a significant burden on the average family. The average family paid a lot of money for a Disney vacation and deserves to spend their time waiting only the amount of time that is typical for an attraction–not that amount of time PLUS the additional time that they must wait for all of the people who claim that their children absolutely can not wait in any lines. I agree with the new system. That way, the disabled person does not have to be in an overstimulating environment during the waiting time–but there still is a waiting time. Nobody should be able to just buzz through the park and skip all of the lines.

  3. Pat says:

    Jeff, Mandy, and to a lesser extent, Lisa. You are making comments on something that you are totally clueless about. All of us parents of autism would gladly trade it in for a ‘normal’ child and wait in lines like everyone else. We aren’t trying to rig the system. The simple fact is, we are now reduced to only visiting during slow times, and we are only lucky enough to have that option because we no longer are limited to our daughter’s school breaks.

  4. Stephanie says:

    As a former employee for 6 years and working the attractions, yes people DO try and rig the system ALL THE TIME. They see the line and all of sudden their child can’t wait in a line. Pat, I’m not saying you do this but there were plenty of people who did and I understand why Disney had to change their policy. I also understand your frustration. Working with children with and without autism, I’ve seen terrible meltdowns and that’s just within a classroom, I can’t imagine that at a theme park. I’m not a parent but I do see both sides of the argument.

  5. Michael says:

    I, for one do not agree with this. This would be taking us a bit backwards. People deserve the same and equal treatment wherever they are, Disney not even being an expectation. I was reading some of the comments and an outraged mother feels it’s not fair that their child with autism only gets a “few extra fast passes.” She continues with saying it’s not their child’s fault that their attention can not last long enough to wait for rides? Wait, what are you serious? No freaking kid wants to wait 45+ mins. to meet Ariel (I didn’t?!). I do agree for people who are irregularly fat (lol) might not fit in some of the queue lines or rides for that matter (although that’s their fault).. but what are they going to do make the rides wider? Easy answer: no. More importantly, for people in the sakes of a need for wheel chairs and such…. have you stood in the Peter Pan’s Flight line…? Well I have and omg it makes me feel so close to everyone and the railing… how would a wheel chair fit in there?! But really cognitive impairments? Like ADHD, even more serious such as autism? What is Disney supposed to do with that.. start handing out free prescribed Mickey shaped pills with a purchase of every park ticket?! Come on guys… lolol

  6. BK31 says:

    While I agree the old system needed to be reformed as a parent of a 5 year old with Autism and a Craniofacial Syndrome (among many other lesser diagnoses) the new system is really not that accommodating to children with severe cases of Autism. Disney was the only theme park we could go to and expect to have a reasonably decent vacation. It is nearly impossible to plan when if and what will set our son off. Most people had assumed we had the GAC before because of his facial differences and his fused fingers and toes, but we really needed it for his Autism and sensory processing issues. Our kids sometimes get into this sort of loop in their brains that can’t be broken until their need or desire is met. I can’t tell you how much behavioral therapy we’ve paid for to help him and us as parents try to deal with that. Just a trip to Target or the grocery store can be hell for us. Do you honestly expect us to stay holed up in our houses all of the time?

    We were probably in the minority and tried not to abuse the GAC, thinking of it more as a priviledge than an entitlement. Personally I’m not asking for an instant fastpass every time, but just some additional accomodation and flexibility beyond what they’re currently offering. I know its a violation of HIPPA and medical privacy to ask for a diagnosis, etc but I’d honestly be willing to share that ahead of time with Disney if there was a way to get something closer to the old system or some sort of pre-registration that may not be directly disclosing medical information but could help to weed out the abusers. I think many other parents of kids with an ASD would do the same as most are used to doing considerable prepping for trips near and far and it would just be one more thing to add to the list.

  7. Disney Mike says:

    I recently helped a close friend — the single mother of an autistic boy — plan a trip to Walt Disney World. She didn’t go with the expectation that she would get special treatment; she merely wanted to have a pleasant trip. Without the luxury of having multiple family members to help out, she had to do everything for herself.

    Like many children with autism, her son can have terrible meltdowns and tantrums if he doesn’t get something he wants when he wants it. Waiting in a long line is usually not an option for this nine-year-old boy.

    So, what did my friend do? She planned her trip for a time when Walt Disney World wouldn’t be crowded. She went in late January. Traveling was easier, crowds were much lighter, and wait times were significantly shorter. (My friend is a schoolteacher who had to take time off work to do this, but, rather than expect the world to do everything for her, she chose to make things as easy as possible on herself.)

    They had a great time. They used the disabled-access FastPass system for some things, and they just went on things with shorter lines most of the rest of the time. The biggest meltdown of the trip occurred when her son wanted to ride something that she knew would be too frightening for him (it might have been Splash Mountain). He didn’t understand that it would be terrifying; he just saw it and wanted to ride it. Disney couldn’t do anything about that.

    My friend said that Disney’s system seemed very fair. Expecting a theme park to provide accommodations for every possible situation is unrealistic — what if your autistic child wants to ride something with a height restriction that they do not meet? — so, as much trouble as it is, parents of special-needs children need to make some sort of effort to deal with potential problems themselves.

    Just as Disney cannot accommodate people with physical disabilities in all situations (a person who is paraplegic cannot be accommodated on something like Space Mountain), Disney cannot be expected to accommodate every possible cognitive disability. Disney is doing an excellent job making reasonable and equitable accommodations, but parents will, unfortunately, have to make an effort, too.

  8. Lauren says:

    I have a sister with intellectual disabilities who also has behavioral issues, and I am a former cast member. Disney has always been a special place, basically the only place my sister can experience the world on “her level.” We have the privilege of going once a year or so, and the GAC card made it possible for my sister to come to a park, enjoy for a few hours, then leave so other families can enjoy for a longer period of time. We rent a wheelchair that helps her to sustain her energy through the theme parks. I often advocate for people with disabilities to live “a life like yours” and can understand perhaps it was time for a change to how people with cognitive/intellectual disabilities are handled at Disney.

    I brought my sister to visit in early March, in a slower week for visitation. I was well prepared for changes, ready to encourage my sister on longer waits in line, etc. What I was not prepared for was the change in attitudes I noticed of the Cast. At Magic Kingdom Guest Relations, I was asked why my sister needed a DAS pass, and had to explain in more detail than I thought necessary about her disability. Before, I am certain we should not have needed to “prove” anything, and am also certain that there are legal reasons why a Cast Member should not be asking this question. I left feeling defensive, but knew things would get better.

    I noticed there was inconsistency when visiting attractions. For example, at Peter Pan’s Flight, we visited three times, and got three different answers of where to cue or if we needed to utilize the DAS pass. On the last visit, a Cast Member asked me “Why are you here?” and when I let him know there was a placard on the building with the international handicapped sign, showed our DAS pass, and let him know that’s where we had gone every other visit, he was quite rude and when he gave us a time to come back, it was later than the wait listed.

    At Test Track, we had a very positive experience and my sister wanted to ride again. I asked the Cast Member at the greeter position to fill out our DAS pass for another time, and decided to create a Magical Moment, allowed us to enter without filling out our card and waiting. At the next position, the CM could not understand how we “snuck in” and again, was rude to us because we did not have a FP+ or the DAS card filled in. I tried explaining, and I believe if another CM had not come around the corner to bump him, he would have made us turn around.

    For these experiences, I do agree there needs to be a drastic change in training and signage at Disney. I shouldn’t leave feeling that I’m inconveniencing anyone by trying to follow the rules. I remember that my purpose as a Cast Member was to “help guests have the most magical time of his or her life.” I unfortunately didn’t leave feeling very magical, and honestly, it breaks my heart. If a lawsuit is the only way to bring attention to guests with disabilities and the services Disney provides, so be it.

  9. Nancy Nally says:

    To the person who asked “don’t I want to be treated equally to other guests”? You obviously don’t understand the predicament of parents of children with disabilities when trying to undertake an excursion like a theme park visit. There is NOTHING equal about our experience. Would you ask why a person in a wheelchair wants a ramp built? Then why are you questioning the accommodations that my child needs for her disability? Why is it publicly acceptable to insult people with autism (which is what one person did when they said “everyone wants a diagnosis for their kid”)? Believe me, NO parent wants to hear that their child has a serious issue and may never live independently. Get over yourself and leave the diagnoses to experts.

    I have a 10 year old with really bad autism. To visit the parks with her means carrying changes of clothes, virtually everything she will eat all day, and a variety of other emergency supplies. It’s one thing to throw a diaper back on the back of a stroller – it’s another thing to have to carry amounts of those supplies for a 10 year old on your back while walking all day.

    Even when my child isn’t in a meltdown mode, you don’t want to wait in line with her. She has no concept of personal space. She bounces around in her own little world, oblivious to those around her and crashing into everything and EVERYONE. I guarantee you, 5 minutes with her behind you in line and you’d be begging to send her to the front of the line so she’d leave you alone in peace. (Attempts to corral her just cause an even more disruptive meltdown…)

    On top of her autism she has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, so she cannot stand for long periods of time without being in pain. As it is just the amount of walking in the parks leaves her sore and inflamed. We try to plan our days so that it minimizes walking but it is still always a taxing day for her. We avoid the busiest times. We avoid events, and rarely ride the most popular things. We eat at off times to avoid those lines. But we can only do so much without assistance.

    Bottom line, to everyone thinking the handicapped families want to be catered to in some insane way, is that we just want the same quality of experience that you have for the price of our insanely expensive tickets. And that takes giving us a little help to get through the day.

    Honestly, I don’t understand why the commenters that don’t have disabled kids are so resentful of those who do. Do you really want to trade places with us? I bet you don’t. You have no concept of what it is like to live with our kids, care for them, manage them on a daily basis. We just want the same thing you want – a magical break from the world. We know what we need to have that. Stop thinking you know better until you’ve lived it.

  10. Pat says:

    Very well said, Nancy, BK31, and others. We would gladly trade a long wait in line for our child to not have mental and/or physical disabilities. We never ‘gamed the system.’ We used a pass for a legitimate disability that was allowed by Disney’s rules. BTW, Walt had a mentally retarded uncle and was very sensitive to those with disabilities.
    I don’t think Stephanie understood what I meant. The cheaters upset us as much as anyone else, and we have feared for years that they would ruin it for honest people like us. And to the comment, ‘go to another park,’ that doesn’t cut it. Our son lives through his Disney movies and shows, and he makes the connection to them at their parks. Drew is 18, he doesn’t get the joy of playing ball sports, riding a bike, dating, driving a car, having friends, potty trained, eating all the good foods we eat. Is it too disruptive to your perfect lives for him to not have to wait 90 minutes for a ride, with his weak bone issues that goes along with his autism? The callousness of some of your comments is sad and sobering.

  11. Matthew Doherty says:

    I really hope Disney wins this lawsuit. Going to Disney is a privilege, not a right. If your child cannot handle long lines, a theme park may not be the best place to take them. There are plenty of other family vacation spots that don’t involve long lines that may cause a ‘meltdown’. Also any child whether they have autism or not is prone to a meltdown. Should I get a pass to skip the line because my child is hot and cranky and may have a meltdown? My best friend of 20 years has an autistic child, they went to Disney 2 years ago and NOT ONCE did they ask for any kind of special pass. Mostly because they didn’t need it. They were able to control their child and if he got uppity they dealt with him. They didn’t ask Disney or other patrons to make a special accommodation for them.

    If Disney loses this lawsuit or changes their policy for kids with autism I’ll tell you exactly what will happen, every child will suddenly have autism. If average joe Disney-goer sees that all they have to do is walk up to Guest Services and say “My child is autistic I want a skip the line pass” every parent will be making an immediate left into City Hall as soon as they get in the park. And because of privacy issues and “they just want to be treated like everyone else” Disney can’t ask for a doctor’s note or Autism Speaks membership card, so there’s no way to be able to differentiate who is lying and who isn’t. And if you think people won’t lie you are sadly mistaken. People paid handicap individuals to tour them around the park, if it saves them hours in line, yeah they will absolutely say “My child has autism”.

    And then what? You’ve accomplished nothing because now everyone has a skip the line card, so the handicap line is now just as long of a wait as the regular line. Theme parks, especially Disney have long waits. If you or your child can’t deal with it perhaps there are better places to enjoy a vacation.

    • Nancy Nally says:

      You know ONE child with autism…which means – you know ONE child with autism. All children with autism are different – some are more profoundly affected than others. They all have different sets of triggers and ways of acting out when their systems get overloaded. They all have different deficits and capabilities. Just because your friend’s child did well at the parks without additional assistance doesn’t mean that all autistic children can.

      If you knew a double amputee that was able to walk the park on prosthetics, would you tell another double amputee that they couldn’t have a wheelchair to visit the park because you’d seen this other person do it walking? I should hope not. So why are you assuming every person with a developmental disability is the same?

      Describing a child as “uppity” is, frankly, offensive. It’s a word that describes an attitude that children are lesser somehow and need to be kept in their place. It’s degrading.

      As for visiting a Disney park being a privilege…NO, if you have a disability, it is a right. The Americans with Disabilities Act says that all Americans have the RIGHT to visit all public accommodations and be accommodated for their disability so they can have an equal experience. The law says that I do not have to look at my child and tell her that she cannot go to what she thinks is the most wonderful place on earth because she is somehow not worthy of being there because of her problems. She has the right to be there and to be accommodated for her needs of her disabilities.

      You ask what will happen if Disney loses or changes the rules for people with autism, and predict some sort of chaos. The old rules applied before to people with autism. Every parent wasn’t declaring their kid had autism to skip the lines. When I saw able-bodied kids in line with us in the handicapped lines before, it was always obvious to my practiced eye who the autistic ones were. I don’t ever remember seeing an able-bodied person with a pass that I questioned the need for. On the other hand, abuse of the passes from groups who rent wheelchairs and then take turns pretending to need them is rampant – and that hasn’t changed with the new system. The changes threw the families who most needed help under the bus while the worst abuse continues.

      It’s interesting that this topic has come up during Autism Awareness Month. I had kind of thought the concept of autism awareness was outdated but from some of the posts here, it’s obvious that some people have a lot of learning to do still about the challenges that people with these disabilities face.

  12. Kristian says:

    I worked in Disneyland in my youth, I also went into Animation as a Career. I also have 4 children with AUTISM! I Can say with pretty good knowledge of both sides. THAT THIS SYSTEM DOES NOT WORK. It is not the waits are problematic or the distances travelled back and forth a pain. It is more alike to making a person with diabetes have to wait, go through all kinds of hoops, lines and special booths to take their insulin or to Eat and then say its not the parks fault when they go into a diabetic Coma… Yes that’s exactly what they are Doing. SENSORY PROBLEMS are just as real as diabetes, I have 2 HFAs 1 med functioning, and, I have one son who is severely autistic non-verbal with seizures. We tried the fast pass once on the Nemo ride when he was little, Alll the people cramped in between those metal bars waiting. He had a complete meltdown and a fit. He is now 6’0 and nearly 200 lbs. the risk of Grand Mal is still great. What would happen if he has a fit and he injures a Normal Guest . I am sure THEN “THEY” would say something.about the system. There are few Rights with Autism, I would wait in a million lines if my son Could talk, or not have fits or any of the things he lives with everyday. But he is not, and think HE should be ABLE to have fun and enjoy Disneyland. It did not take much to do this before. He loves Disney and has them all over his room WALT would have had a fit himself if he heard someone say Disneyland was a privilege!

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