We have updated this article since it was originally published to include the most recent information regarding this trial. To read the current update, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Walt Disney World is back in court today over its Disability Access Policy. The lawsuit, which was filed five years ago, argues that the theme park mogul violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and needs to be more accessible to people with autism and other developmental disabilities. But before people get carried away in the comment threads, let’s break down this lawsuit and understand what is actually happening.
It’s time for another segment of “Disney in Plain English.”
Before 2013, Walt Disney World used to allow guests with developmental disabilities such as autism to receive what is known as “front-of-line” status. Quite simply, they did not have to wait for anything. But that changed in 2013 to Disney World’s current Disability Access Policy, which states that people with disabilities can receive a “Disability Access Service Card.” It works like an unlimited Fastpass. Guests who can receive the card may receive “front-of-line” status, but at later points in the day.
“Okay, what’s wrong with that? They still get to skip the line, right?”
While guests with disabilities and their party can still cut the line, the service card falls very short of the free access they had before the change, and that is causing some problems.
According to a report on disabilityscoop.com,
The problem with the policy, according to the lawsuit, is that some people with autism rely on routine and consistency, and waiting for reserved ride times can throw them off schedule and cause meltdowns and distress.
The lawsuit is filed by a client referred to only as “A.L.” Now a man in his late twenties and finding peace in the meticulously structured day, he and his family say that they have made fewer and fewer trips to Walt Disney World because its current policies make their trips less and less enjoyable.
A.L.’s attorney Andy Dogali of Florida released a statement saying,
“[Before the rule change] Parents of developmentally disabled children universally adored Disney, because of the way Disney caringly accommodated their children. No reasonable mind could ever conclude, after investigating these facts and spending extensive time with these families, anything other than Disney willingly abandoned them.”
The lawsuit seeks money damages on top of the change in policy from Disney.
“So why did Disney change it in the first place?”
Disney World’s policy changed after they discovered guests were grossly abusing it. Disney representatives reported a plethora of fraudulent cases from people only looking for a way to cut the lines. They even reported instances of guests hiring people with disabilities to which they had no relation to help them cut the line.
Intended as somewhat of a middle-ground solution, the “Disability Access Service Card” was meant to provide a sense of order to their accessibility policy; a way to ensure that only those who need to cut the line can do so.
“Disney Parks have an unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all our guests,” said a Disney spokesperson.
A Continuing Battle with Disney Parks
Dogali isn’t just representing “A.L.” against Walt Disney World. He is representing over 60 families filing similar lawsuits against Disney Parks both at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
The courts originally ruled in Disney’s favor back in 2016. However, an appeals process has led to the upcoming trial which will be heard by U.S. District Judge Anne Conway. It will be a non-jury trial scheduled to begin today and last four days.
Dogali was also expected to go to court against Disneyland on March 31, representing a client with autism. However, that trial was reported to be canceled and was sent to mediation in January. As of February 6, neither side has agreed to settlement terms.
Trial Update: A Delayed Decision
As of February 21, there has been an update regarding this trial. The Tampa Bay Times reports that the long-awaited civil trial ended on Thursday, February 20, as U.S. District Court Judge Anne Conway decided not to make an immediate decision regarding the case. Attorneys did not give closing arguments during the Thursday trial, so now both sides have 30 days to file briefs.
“We understand our chances wouldn’t be very good because we don’t have the funds,” said Donna Lorman, the mother of A.L. and also the president of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando. “But it was the right thing to do for our kids.”
It was also reported that Disney paid one witness $575 an hour to testify against the plaintiff. Neuropsychologist and expert witness for Disney Jill Kelderman criticized parents who appease certain extreme behaviors — such as feeding their children chicken nuggets for every meal or, in Lorman’s case, accommodating for their family who need to follow certain routines, like riding Magic Kingdom attractions in a particular order every time they visit. Disney’s witness says this reinforces bad behavior.
Kelderman also reportedly called Lorman’s son’s desire to follow the same route at Magic Kingdom on every visit a “strong preference,” and she questioned whether the behavior required the special accommodations that Lorman is asking for. Disney’s witness believes said such a scenario is different from a guest who uses a wheelchair and needs a ramp to access rides.
This is a developing story and we will continue to update Inside the Magic as more information becomes available.