After months of Facebook chatter, a group of parents and guardians have filed a lawsuit alleging Disney’s Disability Access Service (DAS) discriminates against individuals who have some degree of cognitive impairments. The lawsuit was filed in California on April 3, 2014. The complaint is 176 pages and includes over 640 paragraphs alleging that Disneyland and Walt Disney World have violated the Americans with Disability Act and California laws that prohibit disability discrimination.
Until October 2013, Disneyland and Walt Disney World provided disabled individuals with “Guest Assistance Cards” (GAC) which, depending on the impairment, permitted guests and others with them to bypass waiting in lines for attractions. (This isn’t all GACs did, but bear with me.) Disney scrapped GACs following a widely publicized news article recounted how “one percenters” visited Disney World by “hiring” someone with a GAC to act as a line-bypassing tour guide. (As a side note, the complaint accuses Disney of influencing this publicity “for the specific purpose of creating cover for the planned rollout of the DAS program.”
The complaint has nothing but praise for the GAC process.
With the Guest Assistance Card, though guests were not always expressly promised immediate access to the attractions, immediate access was precisely what Disney, through its employees, routinely delivered. The disabled Plaintiffs’ caretakers knew they could rely upon immediate access when they visited the Disney Parks. Disney would not make them travel all the way to an attraction only to be told to leave and come back later; Disney did not make them wait in a line for more than a few minutes. Very little risk of over-stimulation or meltdown ever arose.
The complaint, however, portrays Disney as doing an about-face with DAS, calling DAS “so obviously discriminatory and so outrageously contrary to Disney’s own knowledge of such guests’ special needs” that, they conclude, Disney has “come to disfavor the presence” of cognitive impairments in the Parks because other guests perceive Disney to be giving “preferential favoritism” to guests with cognitive impairments.
The plaintiffs’ primary complaint is that, while GAC delivered immediate access, DAS assigns a return time for each attraction but that returning at this time will not guarantee immediate access. Even so, the complaint incongruously states that the plaintiffs are not looking for “priority” access but, in the same sentence, says the plaintiffs “have a special need for near-immediate access.” Otherwise, the complaint does not clearly state what the plaintiffs want Disney to do. The closest it comes is in asserting that Disney could program “magic bands” to allow the disabled wearer prompt access to all rides, or to specific rides.” But whatever logic this suggestion might have is defeated by the claim that “Disney refuses to make MagicBands available to persons outside those staying in the Disney resorts.” The complaint was outdated when it was filed (at least as to Walt Disney World, which recently starting making MagicBands available to all guests).
The ADA requires Disney to make modifications that will provide disabled guests with the “full and equal enjoyment” given to non-disabled guests. The U.S. Justice Department regulations explain that full and equal enjoyment means “the right to participate and to have an equal opportunity to obtain the same results as others to the extent possible with such accommodations as may be required by the Act and these regulations. It does not mean that an individual with a disability must achieve an identical result or level of achievement as persons without a disability.” According to one of the Segway court decisions, Disney is not “required to make any and all possible accommodations that would provide full and equal access to disabled patrons; they need only make accommodations that are reasonable.”
It’s my nature to be skeptical about any lawsuit, especially one which includes sensationalized allegations such as accusing Disney of falsely drumming up adverse publicity so it can scrap GACs. The difficulty these plaintiffs will face is demonstrating it is reasonable for Disney to provide them with “near-immediate” access to the attractions so that they can have the “full and equal enjoyment” of other patrons who have to wait in the queue. So, for that reason, I do not agree with the lawsuit that DAS, as it is supposed to work, violates the ADA. At the same time, there are far too many recent reports which demonstrate that Disney’s execution of DAS leaves something to be desired.
The heart of the ADA is tailoring the modification to the needs of the guest’s impairment. To be fair, this is not easy to do when federal regulations purport to prohibit Disney from asking a guest meaningful questions about the guest’s impairment. Still, despite its admirable history of going beyond the ADA requirements, Disney’s cast members need to be trained on what they can and can’t do to accommodate a specific impairment. I’m not suggesting Disney needs an ADA attorney in every ticket booth but the current training does not appear to be adequate.
It will be interesting to see how Disney responds to the lawsuit.