Autism is a Disability

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Subject: Disability Grievance

My child is eight years old and autistic. During a visit to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in June 2012, we discovered system-wide problems with your disability policy, accommodations request system, and providing accommodations to autistic persons. This letter describes our disability grievance and recommendations to correct those issues.

I. Facts

1. My son is 8 years old and is diagnosed with autism. His autism includes hypotonia, high sensory reactivity, motor skills problems, auditory and visual perception problems. Hypotonia means he has very low physical endurance. He can neither walk long distances, nor sit for a long time (sitting takes core muscle strength), no tolerate temperature extremes. He has difficulty judging depth and distance, which means I often must carry him (off and on vehicles, toys, play structures, bathtubs, carousels, beds, etc), or guide him physically, or move his limbs. He is highly reactive to certain visuals, like flags, dresses, crowds, and to certain sounds, like people talking at once and to crowds. He doesn’t climb, balance, or coordinate movements well. He’s photosensitive to bright light, sunlight, and flash photography. His autism means he can’t communicate when he’s near a breaking point, only after he’s reached a breaking point caused by the stress of managing these challenges.

2. My family and I visited WDW’s Magic Kingdom in June 2011. We requested and received disability accommodation in the form of a Guest Assistance Card at MK’s City Hall. We requested and received entrance to rides via the alternative disability entrance. We were not asked nor did we feel compelled to identify my son’s disability.

3. My family and I visited WDW’s Magic Kingdom on June **, 2012. We requested disability accommodation in the form of a Guest Assistance Card at MK’s City Hall.

Me: We’d like to get a disability access card.

Erick, guest relations: We don’t have that.

Me: The Guest Access Card?

Erick, suspiciously: Why do you want one?

Me, puzzled: The card you show for disabilities that allows people to move forward in line.

Erick: You can’t get to the front of the line.

Me, frustrated: My son has autism. He can’t stand in line.

Erick, with distaste: All it does is give you a comfortable place to wait.

Me: That’s what we want.

My husband: Last year, we were here and we got a …

Erick, interrupting: Our policies change all the time. All you can get is a comfortable place to wait.

Erick issued the GAC to us. But his message was clear: we were trying to cheat the system.

4. At four rides, we presented our GAC to the ride attendant at the line and, at all four rides, we were instructed to wait in the regular line. None of the attendants took the card or looked at it. They merely looked at our party, saw no apparent disability, and waved us back to the regular line.

5. The rides were: WDW train, The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Astro Orbiter. The wait time was approximately ten minutes at the train, Haunted Mansion, and Pirates. We waited in line for five minutes at the Orbiter, but left the line after my son reached his breaking point.

6. At all those rides, people with mobility disabilities like wheelchairs and ECVs were shown to the disability entrances and were allowed to use them. We were turned away from them.

7. The GAC reads as follows: “Walt Disney World Resort is committed to providing access to as many Guests as possible. Specific accommodations are made for mobility disabilities, hearing disabilities, visual disabilities and service animals.”

8. Neither the GAC nor the WDW “Guests with disabilities” web page ( lists the following disabilities: autism, developmental disability, or neurological disability.

II. Autism Is a Disability

1. Physical versus Neurological

When most people think of disabilities and access, they think of ramps, handrails, elevators, or automatic doors. According to your policy, disabilities that receive accommodations are physical ones: mobility, hearing, or visual disabilities. Your website and GAC provides no information about developmental disabilities nor about autism accommodations.

Though 1 in 88 children are diagnosed, many people aren’t aware what autism actually means, like the hypotonia, high sensory reactivity, motor skills problems, auditory and visual perception problems for my son. It’s possible that Disney employees believe, like so many people, that autism is merely a behavior problem. Maybe they think it’s just that our child tantrums easily and we don’t want to stand in line with a tantruming child.

So maybe it’s an education issue.

But your cast members’ lack of education about autism leads to a dangerous result: a general bias against neurological differences. If you can’t see it, how do you know it’s real? If it’s in their brain, why can’t you just teach them to stop? How do you know that they or their parents aren’t just making it up? That they aren’t just trying to cheat the system?

Legally, Disney employees are prohibited from asking a disabled person to “unnecessarily identify the existence of a disability” (Americans with Disabilities Act). But that’s exactly what we would have to do to convince Disney employees that my son needed accommodation. And not just one time at City Hall to get the GA card, but each time we wanted to use the disability entrance at a ride, since we were turned away by each ride attendant.

Because Disney cannot legally ask for a guest to identify or prove his disability, Disney has given its employees the power to decide that a person is not disabled by how he looks, sounds, or communicates a request for accommodation. It’s bias against neurological differences to think an employee can tell by looking or talking to the person. It’s unequal treatment to have an unwritten policy of screening individuals for disabilities. It’s unequal treatment to require further proof of disability without notifying the public.

2. System Abuse by Non-Disabled

Disney reasons that proving disability is necessary because of abuse of the system by people pretending to have a disability. Examples are renting a wheelchair, and heading over to get a GAC and a website (…) that encourages people to fake it and ask for a GAC to avoid long lines.

But abuse of the system could happen for apparent disabilities, like physical ones, too. See the wheelchair example. If physical disabilities don’t need to be proven, hidden disabilities like autism should not have to be either. That’s discrimination based on a specific kind of disability.

If we think, well, of course it must be proven precisely because you can’t see it, that’s not good enough. A disabled person must request accommodation for his disability, not prove it. ADA doesn’t say that a person with a non-obvious disability must prove it. Disney guests may bring in ECVs, borrow a wheelchair, or get a TTD device without proof. The only difference is that the disability is neurological – and we are skeptical and distrustful of brain differences as a society.

Abuse of the system is not a good enough reason. Non-disabled person’s abuse of the system should not shift the burden to disabled persons to prove disability. That’s a problem with the system, not the disabled person. But that’s exactly the kind of burden-shifting going on and one that reveals the prejudice against non-apparent disabilities.

4. Arbitrary and Capricious Policy

While ADA provides that the disabled person is not required to “unnecessarily identify the existence of his disability,” the problem is that your disability system is arbitrary and capricious. Some disabled persons will receive accommodation Some disabled persons won’t. Some disabled persons are not required to prove their disabilities. Some disabled are. Some disabled persons are permitted to use the disability entrance. Some disabled are not. What determines which disabled persons get a disability pass and can use the disability entrance? An unwritten code applied haphazardly depending on circumstance and individual employee. That is an arbitrary and capricious system.

It should be of little comfort to you to place the blame on me. Whether I used the “right” language, whether I should have complained, whether I should have requested a supervisor doesn’t matter in the end. Partly because we actually did receive the correct disability pass at WDW City Hall, but mostly because denial or ill treatment could happen to anyone, including an autistic. The accommodation request system should be set up with access to the disabled. It should contain system fail-safes to ensure that a disabled person is not denied accommodation because of their very disability – social, language, and communication differences n autism particularly.

Receiving a disabled pass at Disney is of less concern to me than how my son and his fellow autistics are perceived and treated. If Disney, the company that sets the bar for how disabled persons are treated, prioritizes physical disabilities and treats non-apparent disabilities with distrust, then imagine how worse other places will treat them. If a member of the general population at Disney shouts at an autistic child for going through the disabled entrance at an amusement park, where everyone will ride as many rides as they want all day long in a pleasant, stress-free environment, imagine how they will treat an autistic when they feel threatened by a perceived loss of income, job position, taxes, or services.

The problem with the four ride attendants turning us away from the disabled entrance, despite the fact that we had a disabled entrance pass, is another symbol of general prejudice against non-apparent disability. This happened not once, but four separate times with four different individuals. That tells us that this is a systemic issue, not an individual employee or guest issue.

Someone suggested we were turned away because the regular lines were ten minutes or less. So imagine this scenario instead. A person with a mobility disability is capable of standing, but uses a wheelchair because standing causes pain, loss of endurance, imbalance, and exhaustion. She approaches the disabled entrance but, since the regular line is ten minutes or less, she is told to park her wheelchair and stand in line. Are we outraged? We should be. The same is true for my son and for other autistics. Standing in line causes him pain, loss of endurance, imbalance, and exhaustion. He has a disability. It does not matter that his disability is non-apparent or that he wasn’t using a mobility aid. He should be provided the accommodation he needs, the same as a physically-apparent disability.

My concern is not so much individual, but for autistics as a group. WDW should provide accommodations to all autistic persons, not some. WDW should recognize the physical part of autism. WDW should have accommodations and systems already in place for autistics. Autistic persons should not have to prove their needs in a public and dehumanizing way. Autistic persons should not be treated as not really disabled, not as disabled as those with physical disabilities. Autistic persons should not b refused accommodation because they don’t appear to have mobility, hearing, or visual disabilities.

III. What Needs To Change

1. Physical Area for Accommodation Requests

The physical area that disabled persons must make their request for accommodation at the WDW Magic Kingdom is City Hall. Guests wait near City Hall entrance for a WDW employee at the counter to become available. At the time of our arrival, about four employees were working the counter. Other guests were at the counter, including a family of two adults and three children, an adult on an ECV, another family of two adults and approximately two children Other guests who were not accessing City Hall services, but using City Hall to pass from the Tangled character meet and greet next to City Hall towards Main Street, pass close to the counter and to City Hall guests and employees. The space is narrow and individuals are close to each other.

This venue is very public. If the disability is non-apparent, like autism, disabled persons must reveal private medical information in a very public venue. This information can easily be heard by other employees and guests. This physical area results in unnecessary disclosure of medical information. Your venue for disability requests for accommodation should be changed to provide privacy for the discussion of private medical information.

2. Disability Screening

Your employees screen requests for disability accommodation in an attempt to reduce non-disabled persons from obtaining a GAC fraudulently. The possible harm in fraudulent issuance of a GAC card is that other truly disabled persons may have to wait longer times at rides. The possible harm in your method of screening requests, though, is greater. These harms include the denial of accommodation to a disabled person, the fostering of an attitude of distrust and prejudice against persons with disabilities, especially those with non-apparent disabilities like autism, the practice of an unwritten, vague policy, and an arbitrary and capricious system that determines denial or approval of accommodations requests based on circumstance and individual employee.

The method for screening must be uniform, clear, written, and available to the public. A reasonable person should be able to read the screening policy and determine how to fulfill the requirements to receive the proper accommodations. Screening should not be based on a presumption of fraud. It should not favor apparent disabilities (those that are always visible) over non-apparent disabilities, such as autism and other neurological disabilities. The screening process should protect medical privacy and comply with the ADA.

3. Employee Training

WDW employees should receive education about autism and accommodations, preferably from autistic persons and their organizations, such as Autistic Self-Advocacy Network ( Disney cast members should understand the challenges of autism, but also the challenges of prejudice against autism and non-apparent disability.

4. Ride Accommodations

WDW should ensure fail-safes so that autistic individuals are granted access to disability entrances at rides, just as mobility-disabled guests are, regardless of length of wait times in regular lines. If entrance priorities are given to mobility-disabled guests for space reasons, then autistic guests must be provided with a comfortable place to wait that has no bright, flashing lights, flash photography, background music, crowds of people, or noise.

I look forward to your immediate attention to these issues.



This letter was originally posted at Mama Be Good, and is republished here with permission.


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