First, some quick background on the change, in case you are not up to speed. For several years, Disney has issued "Guest Assistance Cards" (or "GACs") to guests with disabilities. Holders of these cards, and their parties, were granted expedited (in many cases, immediate) boarding access on Disney's rides and attractions. The GAC policy was obviously very popular and, accordingly, was abused by some. Over the last several months, the media reported instances of wealthy guests hiring disabled people as tour guides at Disney parks, thus allowing the entire group immediate boarding privileges. Recognizing that abuse was, "unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate," Disney has now unveiled a new policy, set to take effect this week (October 9), that eliminates GACs and expedited boarding privileges and replaces them with new "Disability Access Service" ("DAS") cards.
Under the new DAS policy (a more detailed discussion of which can be found here), expedited boarding privileges are no longer routinely granted. Instead the DAS policy requires card holders to obtain a boarding time, based on the current length of the line, for the card holder and his / her party. Boarding times are only granted for one attraction at a time, i.e. a DAS card holder cannot "stack" boarding times to allow access to a series of attractions consecutively while only, in effect, waiting the length of the line for the first one. Only after the first boarding time has elapsed, can a DAS card holder obtain a time for a second attraction.
This is how the new policy is being reported in the media. And it is this presentation of the policy that seems to have resulted in criticism and outrage from some in the disabled community who complain that the new policy does not address the needs of those guests who not only cannot wait in line, but those guests who simply cannot wait at all. A recent Orlando Sentinel report sums up the concern:
"Some parents say waiting for an extended period of time, even if they don't have to stand in a crowded queue, is not practical for their children. Some cannot mentally process why they can't ride immediately. Others must be on rigid schedules for food, medicine or even bathroom breaks. Some can be in the parks for only two or three hours before their child becomes exhausted or has a meltdown."
But does the new policy really make it impossible for children (or anyone else) with particular disabilities that make waiting impossible or unduly burdensome to visit Disney's parks? No. In fact, there is one critical portion of the DAS policy that has gone almost totally unmentioned in the recent reports. It's this, from Disney's official blog:
"Q. What will Disney Parks do if a Guest is concerned the DAS Card doesn’t meet their needs?
A. Disney Parks have long recognized and accommodated guests with varying needs and will continue to work individually with guests with disabilities to provide assistance that is responsive to their unique circumstances. Guests should visit Guest Relations to discuss their individual needs."
This is an important, indeed vital, component of the DAS policy and no one seems to have noticed it. Why is it so important? Because, it provides exactly the flexibility that is demanded under the Americans With Disabilties Act and, perhaps (as a practical matter) more importantly, by Disney's disabled guests.
Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations, such as Disney's parks, to provide to disabled guests, with only limited exceptions, the same opportunity for "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" offered to the general public visiting its facilities. 42 U.S.C. 12182(a). It's a legal requirement echoed by some, including some in the disabled community, who have argued that the new policy is fine because it gives "equal access" not better or easier access. To such people, requiring disabled guests to wait the length of the line to board an attraction does nothing more than provide the same service that other guests to the park receive. Nothing less, nothing more.
But what about those guests who have disabilities that prevent them from waiting at all? Those guests who must have their days strictly scheduled, or who can become easily overwhelmed by the constant stimuli of the theme park environment? Is it any answer to say to those guests that Disney only has to give them the exact same experience it gives to everyone else regardless of individual circumstances. No. That's not an answer (at least, it's not a legally correct answer). The ADA requires more flexibility than that, and in particular requires that public accommodations:
"make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations."