Authors: Aaron Goldberg
Tags: #Taled of Real Life Disney Scandals, #Accidents and Deaths, #Sex
The guidebook had information about renting wheelchairs, which attractions are wheelchair-accessible, accommodations for sight-and-hearing impaired visitors and parade viewing areas for wheelchair guests. A to Z, it was all there back in the 1980s. Today, much of the same is still offered by Disney. It is conveyed via their bevy of websites and countless other sites on the internet from some good folks who share their own experiences and “know-how” in an effort to conquer Disney despite some limitations.
The Disney parks are able to accommodate guests with variety disabilities. For those with visual impairments, braille maps, and an audio description device are available to explain many of the attractions and visual elements of the park.
Those who are hearing impaired have their choice of reflective captioning, sign language interpreters, video captioning, or assisted listening devices. All guests, regardless of their disability, be it hearing, visual, or wheelchair-bound, are offered modified guest rooms to make their stay comfortable and safe; which wasn’t always the case.
As the disability climate evolved for the better over the decades, primarily with the American Disability Act of 1990 (ADA) and an additional amendment in 2008 and modifications in 2010, these laws ensured equal treatment for disabled folks. The laws are an effort to make life as livable as possible for the disabled and thwart any discrimination attempts in a public or commercial setting.
According to some, discrimination wasn’t entirely eliminated at Disney. Looking back over the years, many guests complained and sued. The claims were/are that Disney didn’t do enough to accommodate some of the folks who frequent their parks.
There was a lawsuit in 1998 complaining about the handicap parking spots at Disney’s Animal Kingdom being non-compliant to ADA specifications; along with claims about ill-equipped bathrooms and various ramps around the park without hand rails.
Several lawsuits throughout the early part of the 2000s indicated not enough hotel rooms, facilities and even attractions throughout their Florida resorts and parks were handicap accessible, which denied certain folks the ability to enjoy the full Disney experience. Most lawsuits weren’t seeking money but instead seeking corrections to the problems.
We know from our day-to-day lives outside of all things Disney, not everything is one size fits all, so to speak. Disney being a purveyor and provider of countless things to an even greater number of people at times had trouble keeping up with appropriate accommodations for certain folks. Nearly 57 million people or 20% of the population according to the most recent census have a disability. At times disabled folks have felt discriminated against or excluded at Disney’s parks. The situations needed to be rectified by Disney, and usually were. From time to time, the company needed a little push from a lawsuit or the government.
Despite these “pushes,” their plans weren’t always incorporated smoothly into their theme parks or without initial resistance. Disney has accommodated and made many attractions accessible for those in a wheelchair. On the resort side of the business, Disney redesigned many pools to be zero entry, along with incorporating chair lifts to assist in getting guests into the pool, but the changes didn’t always reflect their attitude and other theme park operators' willingness to the make these changes.
In early 2000 articles by the Associated Press outlined proposed changes to the theme park industry for 2001 and 2002. Members of the industry, Disney included, initially called them unfriendly to operators. The changes were deemed restrictive, expensive and even dangerous. Yet despite the push back from operators, most of these changes were signed into law and are in operation daily at theme parks today. But during this time there were certainly some bumps along the way.
In March of 1997, Disneyland quietly tried to end their twenty-year-old charitable program, Happy Hearts. The program allowed children with disabilities to enjoy Disneyland at a reduced ticket price. The program ran twice a year for six days, usually in February and November. It was always wildly successful as tens of thousands of handicapped children from all over southern California descended upon the park. Once word of the program's demise hit the public, Disney and the Los Angeles Times were inundated with complaints and outrage over their decision. Happy Hearts was starting to sound cold-hearted by Disney. A few days of backlash and bad publicity and Disney reinstated the program. Today, Disneyland runs a similar program under a different name, the Community Involvement Program.
In the opening paragraphs of this chapter, Disney’s efforts to accommodate handicapped or disabled guests were touched upon. Some applauded their efforts while others lambasted them. They said Disney was not being proactive and was still in violation of the laws, particularly for the visually and hearing-impaired.
In September of 2010, three visually impaired women filed a class action lawsuit against Disney. The women, each long time lovers and visitors to the Disney parks, claimed Disney’s websites, parks, and hotels were in violation of the ADA.
The ADA requires companies to respect the needs of visually impaired folks, thus they need to accommodate them with the use of a screen reader (a software program that interprets what is displayed on a computer screen and then is heard audibly with text-to-speech programs or sent to a braille output device). The complaint filed against Disney indicated many of their websites are full of audio and video trailers, which overpower the audio of the screen readers and can’t be turned off by people who can’t operate a mouse. The websites also featured the computer program Flash, which the visually impaired can’t interpret with their own software programs.
Once inside the Disney parks, the lawsuit claimed Disney didn’t provide menus, maps or schedules in formats for the visually impaired. In addition, Disney wasn’t accommodating for those requiring service dogs, nor did they offer discounted admission to support companions the visually impaired need to function on a daily basis. The complaint also contended that Disney denied it owed any social obligation to persons as a group. They made decisions regarding accommodations for their disabled guests on an individual, as-needed basis and not as a company-wide policy.
By 2011, a federal judge certified the class action status for the four subclasses of the case and allowed for the lawsuit to proceed. The certified complaints brought Disney to the negotiating table. After a bit of give and take, the settlement was reached in January 2013 and was approved by the court. The agreement for the four subclasses, website, communication, service animal, and infrastructure, brought much of the desired justice the suit initially requested.
Some of the more notable settlement terms were: Disney cast members must read menus to visually impaired people if asked. A telephone hotline for impaired guests to receive menu information, park hours, parade schedules and show information will be established. Large fixed-braille maps for both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, mobile braille maps will be developed for handheld devices that operate via GPS. This will allow guests to meander through the park and navigate to attractions with the device. Disney will provide designated service animal relief areas, along with a temporary kennel to house service animals when they can’t join their owner on an attraction. Disney costumed characters must interact with disabled guests without acknowledging the obvious presence of their service animal. Disney must also provide parade preferred viewing areas for visually impaired guests. Lastly, Disney must give 100 one-day passes each to two charities that support the visually impaired. Disney was given one year to implement these, and other agreed upon, changes from the settlement.
Hearing-impaired guests seeking better accommodations at Disney also received some help from the government but without the need for a class action lawsuit. In the mid 1990s the United States Department of Justice received a series of complaints from hearing-impaired guests claiming they were “denied effective communication as required by the ADA” during their visit to Disney. The government agency and Disney collaborated over a period of two years to create and implement a system within their parks to aide in improving visits for the hearing impaired.
The announcement came in early 1997 and outlined a framework of comprehensive auxiliary aides throughout both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. With advanced notice, parks on both coasts would begin offering sign language interpreters at no cost to the guest. The interpreters are made available for parades, staged performances, and other entertainment featured throughout the parks. Advanced audio-visual aides and closed-captioning systems were also implemented into over 100 attractions.
Disney attractions that utilize a theatre as their medium to entertain received a system called rear-window captioning. The rear window system projects captions on a screen in the back of the theatre’s wall in mirror image, at the hearing-impaired person’s seat, anywhere in the theatre, a small plexi-glass panel is placed in front of the guest and catches the reflection of the text that was projected behind them on the theatre wall. The person is now able to read the closed captioning from their seat via the specialized panel.
In 2001, a revolutionary personal transportation device took the country by storm. Most people have seen them by now. The two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered Segway that allows people to virtually glide by quietly at up to twelve miles an hour and travel nearly twenty-five miles per charge of the battery. When it debuted, proponents touted it as a vehicle that will change the way we live and the way we get around day in and day out. Never mind the several thousand dollar price tag, think about how much money will be saved when you ditch your four-wheeled, gas-guzzling car and hop aboard the two-wheeled mystery machine.
Soon cities all over the country and world were offering Segway tours. Disney, always looking to maintain their pop-culture relevancy, climbed aboard the Segway bandwagon with tours at EPCOT (along with a chance for guests to take a spin on one at Innoventions) and Disney’s California Adventure.
There was even a story in The Wall Street Journal in 2008, when gas prices were soaring, that profiled a fifty-four-year-old Disneyland employee who commuted twelve miles to work on his Segway. The novel transportation was being utilized not only personally but also commercially with law enforcement and businesses (Disney is one of the largest purchasers of Segways in the country but they are used “back stage”). Even the disabled were starting to deploy them as a means to get around instead of wheelchairs and scooters.
As time progressed, all was not great in the land of the Segway. Many cities and municipalities banned folks from traversing down sidewalks on them. Emergency rooms started to see Segway-related injuries. Broken bones, brain damage, and bumps and bruises were some of the lawsuits filed against Segway dealers and the manufacturer. The same news outlets that flooded the public with news stories about the Segway’s ingenuity were featuring stories about the various accidents involving the upwardly mobile. There were riders getting arrested for DWI; one proud owner managed to do this three times. People running over toddlers, others being hit by passing cars, and unfortunately, even death after riding a Segway off a cliff; remember this one for later.
As discussed earlier in the book, Disney has issues from time to time with guests speeding in their power chairs. Remember Katrina back in 1995, who had her annual pass to Disneyland suspended because she was cited for speeding too many times. With large crowds of people, along with a smattering of wheelchairs and power chairs, Disney thought it would be best to ban the Segway from their parks. Seems fair enough right? Having a large stride can sometimes hinder one from meandering through the crowds at any of the parks, let alone the idea of wheeling about upright on a vehicle that can hit twelve miles per hour.
Well, not everyone was on board with Disney’s ban. In fact, there was a growing contingency of disabled folks that used Segways instead of wheelchairs or scooters. Three of them in fact wanted to visit Walt Disney World aboard their vehicle and were denied access; subsequently, the trio filed a lawsuit against the park, citing discrimination under the American with Disabilities Act. The November of 2007 suit claimed 4,000 to 7,000 disabled people rely on their Segway as a primary means of transportation. The Segway offers more mobility and dignity than a wheelchair. One of the plaintiffs suffered from multiple sclerosis, another lost their foot in an accident, and the third suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A similar situation was also playing out across the country at Disneyland. In May of 2006, Tina, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, inquired to Disneyland if she could visit the park on her Segway to celebrate her birthday with her daughter, as she had never been there. Disneyland informed Tina they would not be able to honor her request for safety reasons. In August of 2007, Tina filed suit against Disney alleging violations of the federal ADA and California law; she also filed similar suits against Sav-On Drug Store, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and Santa Monica Ford.
This court case, like so many others Disney finds itself involved in, trickled through the overburdened California legal system. Disney’s lawyers were steadfast in their argument during the seven years of court proceedings at the state and federal level.
They declared the Segway as an unstable, two-wheeled device that could accelerate quickly in forward and reverse. These movements cannot only injure the rider but the pedestrians in the vicinity. Most notable in close quarters, where someone may inadvertently bump into the Segway, enabling it to lunge forward or backward. Tina and her legal defense continually pressed the issue of her never having an accident and citing the Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Disabled Persons Act. By law, Disney was required to reasonably accommodate her.
Disney’s response to that claim was that her Segway was not a reasonable accommodation whereas a wheelchair or scooter is, which she is more than welcome to use. The two sides went back and forth, Disney would prevail and Tina’s team would appeal. At one point in 2012, a federal court of appeals sided with Tina. They indicated Tina’s use of Segway could be necessary even if she could use a wheelchair or scooter. This victory was short-lived when Disney appealed. While the above statement may be true, it didn’t mean Disney must allow for Segways to be used at the park in her situation, Disney’s legal defense persisted.