Still, the more I looked into it, the more I heard stories of people having problems with it and being underserved. It seems that a trend has been developing within the Disney culture to actually restrict access to the Disney experience in general and to some disabled people on certain rides. I began to realize the book would now not only be a "how to access the rides" book but also an instruction manual on "how to be an advocate for yourself and other disabled people at Disney."
As I assessed the new system from a personal standpoint as well as taking in information from others about their experiences, I was troubled. I love Disney. I have grown up Disney watching the movies and TV shows and, of course, going to Disneyland. In fact my love (some say unhealthy obsession) to Disney has been focused around as many trips to Disneyland per year that I can manage. I took my kids to this Magic Kingdom many times as they were growing up and now I am introducing it to my grandchildren. As I am writing this, at the age of 5, they have been on 13 trips with my wife and I. The intensity of this attachment may be the subject of another blog, but I know I am not alone. There are many, many others for whom a trip to Disneyland, or Walt Disney World, is more than just fun, it is a magical experience. So, my slow realization that Disney may have dropped the ball on the change to the DAS was disconcerting. It almost made me feel like a traitor to take up a position criticizing it. Nevertheless, the facts of some people experiences being marginalized by the new policy kept coming in. I could no longer brush it aside as a few complainers who simply don't like change.
At first, I thought it was just a matter of employee training. ADA access is a sensitive and complicated issue. In the past, I have reported that I feel Disney had gone above and beyond in their attempt to provide access. However, sadly I am now forced to report the pendulum seems to swinging the other way. Had my book been published in early 2013, it might not have included this trend and what disabled people can possibly do about it. It would have been out-of-date. I am now in the process of a rewrite to include strategies for disabled people to be advocates for their own access as well as for others.
There may be a number of reasons why this is occurring. Disney certainly has its hands full with the complexities of this issue. But some of the "solutions" to the complexities end up restricting access where no restriction existed before. As this blog entry was being written, a class action lawsuit has been filed on the behalf of several disabled patrons - mostly those with cognitive disabilities or who have family members with cognitive disabilities. The central theme of the lawsuit seems to be that the previous system Disney used, the Guest Assistance Card (GAC), met these people's needs, the new DAS system does not or is more difficult and therefore more restrictive to disabled access.
Does the new DAS system meet the needs of some people? Sure. And those people may be quick to defend Disney and the new system. Disney itself points to the fact that many people use the new DAS system and are satisfied with it. However, the ultimate test of a system's fairness is not determined by the testimony from those for whom it works, but by those for whom it doesn't. I'm sure there was a time when many people in the Deep South once thought a "system" of separate but equal drinking fountains was working fine for them.
The test of disabled access comes down to a term that on the surface seems like common sense, but in fact lends itself to many interpretations: Reasonable Accommodation. The reason the term is open to wide interpretation depends on perspective. How much disabled access is reasonable? What is the cost of making appropriate changes to accommodate this access? Can those people with extremely rare conditions which require expensive modifications and accommodation reasonably expect changes be made to fit their unique situation? The process of striking this delicate balance of needs and accommodation requires communication between the venue and the individual. They sometimes don't agree and, as a last resort, sometimes answers to these questions are often answered in the courts.
Jumping Through Hoops
Ironic image of disabled people jumping through hoops aside, I can tell you this is what many users of the new DAS system feel like. Disney's justification for added steps presumably is that we must first step back before we go forward. However, the effect of the new DAS system has meant more complexity, more difficulties and confusion for many.
While again stipulating that many people's needs are met, let's look at the areas where the new system seems to be having problems that the old GAC system didn't have.
o The New System Adds More Steps to Visits than Old System Did
You must obtain a DAS at Guest Services (for which you must wait in a line btw). You must be photographed for the purpose of identification even though you were already photographed when purchasing your ticket. Then, you must return to one of a few DAS kiosks placed at various places in the park to obtain return times for many rides. Imagine the increased walking one must do with, say, bad knees, if you had to do this for every ride.
o Those with Cognitive Disabilities Encountering New Restrictions
As far as disabled persons are concerned, it cannot be said enough that one size does not fit all. There is a saying among those familiar with autism that states, "Once you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism." As such, there is perhaps no group deserving of the term "special needs" than those with autism and other cognitive disorders. The needs of those with autism and other cognitive difficulties are varied, complex, and sometimes completely unique to the individual. Interestingly, the accommodation is often very simple. As an example consider this scenario: a child with autism who also has an obsessive compulsive component may want to ride on a particular ride 3 times in a row before proceeding on through the day. If not, they are prone to meltdowns. This requires a sort of "Fastpass" type entry and re-entry to the ride. With the old system, a re-ad pass was issued and the child could ride the 3 times they needed. Under the new system, re-ads are being restricted or even discontinued.
o Those with Physical Limitations Being Denied DAS Access
This was one of the most troubling of the changes. Under the previous GAC system, you just needed to drop by guest services on your way into the park to obtain your GAC card by making a simple request for one. Under the new DAS system, reports have surfaced of people being denied DAS cards. The reason being given to these patrons is puzzling and seems contradictory to the reasons the DAS system exists in the first place. Those being denied are told they simply don't need one -- that the parks are ADA accessible and that the DAS system is only for people with very specific needs. As an example, a disabled friend of mine (I will refer to them as "W") who normally rides a scooter because of a disabling conditions in her knees which prevents her from standing or walking for long distances, approached Disneyland on a day where it was raining. Scooters don't always do well in the rain, so she walked from the tram to the entrance and asked for a DAS at guest services inside. W was denied a DAS card. She was told that if she had difficulty standing or walking she should just rent a wheelchair. She was alone and pushing herself along all day in a wheelchair was an exhausting option. So, after a few minutes, she just went home. She later returned and, with the help of a knowledgeable friend, told GUest Services that denying her a DAS was discriminatory. She was then finally issued a pass. Why did it require the insistence and extra steps? The assumption can be fairly made that Disney's first response is to deny access to the DAS and only yield when someone speaks up.
o Some in ECVs Being Challenged with Transfers to Manual Wheelchairs
Imagine finding the mobility device that meets your needs, and then being told you must transfer to some other arbitrary device. Because I have personal experience with this, I will cover this issue in a future blog post related to this topic.
By now, most people are well aware the the reason given by Disney that the old system was abandoned and new one instituted was because of abuse by able-bodied patrons. Many doubt the problem of abuse was as pervasive as portrayed. A system relying on honesty where the violators of the rules must pretend to be disabled or must take advantage of disabled access will find its level in our society -- it is not an honorable or proud behavioral path. Sadly, although some people in our society might take this path, most people have more integrity and won't. One might also wonder at the curious timing of the news articles that described the abuse as "rampant". They hit the media just months before the DAS was unveiled and made Disney look like the victim. They also made able-bodied people look like victims of unfairness. The timing of these highly publicized stories can either be viewed as fortuitous to Disney's goal of changing a system already in development, or one could easily imagine that they were savvy PR play.
The media also continually misconstrued the old GAC system as one where "people with disabilities were being ushered to the front of the lines." While at one time in the distant past Disney experimented with actually allowing disabled people front-of-the-line access, it has not been the case for many years. Instead, those with disabilities and who acquired a GAC were allowed access to Fastpass lines. The Fastpass line system is where all patrons can get a ticket to return to a various rides at some future time and get into a shorter line. Disabled people were allowed access to these lines without obtaining the ticket. Other expedited access including sometimes entering the ride via the exit. This sometimes has the effect of a shorter line wait depending on the number of disabled people there -- but not always. Also, from a personal standpoint, I can tell you most disabled people would rather enter through a normal queue than the exit which has the feel of being "ushered in through the kitchen".
Is the New DAS System Better or Worse?
With all due respect to whatever abuse may have occurred, the bottom line for measuring the effectiveness and value of the new DAS system for disabled people is to compare it to the old GAC system. Are disabled person's needs being better served by the new system or not. Disney has stated they are trying to accommodate people based on them speaking up and stating special requests. But under the old system this was not nearly as necessary. In addition, Disney seems to have made it policy not to respond to many requests for reasonable accommodation made in advance. They instead respond that all issues can be dealt with at the park. This leaves the disabled person in the position of having to decide to invest the considerable amount of resources it takes to visit the Disney parks before knowing how, or if, the new DAS system will work for them. Six months after implementation, a great many disabled people are complaining that it is definitely more difficult for them at Disney parks, not easier or better. So, the new system is a failure in that respect. It's effects are discouraging and restrictive to many disabled people. It is therefore discriminatory in it's design if not only in it's effect.
Future blog posts, as well as a section within the book, will deal with the problems people with Non-Apparent Disabilities are experiencing at Disney. These include those with cognitive disabilities (Autism, ADHD, etc) as well as those with disabilities like back and leg problems and fatigue and endurance issues. As this blog is being written, many people with these issues are being denied a DAS and are instead told the park is 100% handicap accessible (?). These people are simply instructed to rent a wheelchair or scooter if they want better access.
My open challenge to Disney is to recognize that the new system is inadequate. In spite of the acknowledged problem of some abuse, the old system worked well for disabled people. Disney must use their most famous asset to address this disparity and find the appropriate solution -- their Imagination.