Before I begin, I would like to establish a few things due to the delicate nature of the subject. The first of which being that I personally have two children who, between them, have Autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Anxiety, Speech difficulties, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and a few other labels that don’t directly pertain to this subject. To be frank, one of my children has all of the things mentioned above, so as I write this, I can only hope that it is interpreted from a place of heartfelt retrospect rather than a judgmental derivative of stories we hear in the news.
I want to emphasize that no two experiences with disabilities are the same. In this instance, I am focusing on the invisible (non-apparent) disabilities like those mentioned above. Without the visual cue that there is a physical disability or sign of impairment that might lead those around you to be more receptive or make allowances, there is an expectation that everyone can cope in the same way.
Your circumstances, abilities and the capability of those around you all play a part in how you manage different scenarios, but there is another level of variance for people with special needs that relates to the unknown. The inability to reasonably predict what outcome a new situation will trigger in a person with a disability is a huge factor for special needs families. Due to the myriad of possible responses to a new environment, one can’t begin to assume what the likely result to new stimulation will be. Since many disabilities are invisible, there is an assumed expectation of capability, awareness, and ability to process everything around you no differently to the next person. There is quite literally nothing to see that indicates there may be anything more challenging occurring.
Despite this, Disney goes to great lengths to provide families and individuals with many services including the DAS pass, Disability Access Service pass, giving you more freedom to return to your ride at the appropriate time rather than stand in a long line that your family may not be able to cope with. It’s a similar idea to the FastPass system (now Lightning Lane) in that it significantly reduces the traditional wait time by moving participants out of the physical line and into a virtual one. This is offered by Disney based on nothing but the say-so of the individual or the carer. You require no proof, no additional information or diagnostic reports, nothing to prove the severity of the condition, just a simple show of good faith by Disney that if you say you need the assistance, they will provide it, no questions asked. I take issue with this as well; however, I will get back to that a little later. The point is, the support is there for you to take advantage of if you feel you need it.
The news story regarding the lawsuit against Disney on behalf of severely autistic or mentally disabled individuals has me struggling to reconcile with my own ethical and logical thoughts. I have written many other articles centered around traveling with special needs, but one question that is always asked is why I don’t place more emphasis on the DAS services. Let me be blunt, I make my children stand in line. Not because I don’t know about the DAS pass but because I feel that they can. They either are able to or are close enough to be able to cope that I think the experience is an educational one, an opportunity to grow and learn using the most significant incentive of all, Disney, as the bait. Sure, I could easily go and ask for the pass, leaving us with a more comfortable and streamlined day. However, does that genuinely benefit my children in the way that being encouraged to persevere and practice waiting does? For my particular circumstances, I believe the lesson outweighs the assistance. After all, they will not be 8 and 10 forever. They are soon to be heading into their teen years and adulthood, where the world will be less and less accommodating of their needs, so my husband and I agree on the importance of preparing them for the world rather than trying to prepare the world for them.
That is not to say this is the correct decision for all families dealing with special needs. There are some out there that do, and should, take advantage of these passes so they can make the experience possible. There are also plenty of people out there to throw up a hand for a very mildly diagnosed difficulty or even worse, not having one at all, to take advantage of services they don’t need.
In referring to this lawsuit, my children are not on the severe end of the scale; they are closer to the middle, so I don’t feel for a moment that a bit of discipline is the answer to everyone’s problems. On the contrary, I concede that that is an experience I do not understand and hope they can find the help they need. The real question is, whose responsibility is it to ensure every person has the assistance and allowances they need within the parks for an equal experience? And, at what point does the environment simply not suit the individual or the family?
My problem is the sense of entitlement that is infiltrating our communities. There is a sense of untouchability that comes with certain disabilities. Individuals are taking advantage of this new wave of understanding and respect for things like Autism and Sensory Disorders. There are groups of people escalating expectations and consequences instead of encouraging education and taking responsibility for their own circumstances. This lawsuit seemingly implies that guests with severe impairments should be able to walk on to any ride they desire at any given time to avoid the damaging effects of needing to wait for any period of time. In a perfect world, I would agree; I want all your children to have everything they need to cope and be happy, but in reality, this ideal is impossible. Everyday life will simulate this exact complaint from the grocery store to waiting to use the restrooms — this is life. It doesn’t make it any easier for these people to cope with, but does that make it Disney’s responsibility? Allowances and programs in place to help with special needs are not there to level the playing field. Nothing can do that. And if that is what you are looking for you have come to the wrong place, because life isn’t fair for anyone, and it indeed isn’t equal in opportunity. But if we take it too far and make disabilities untouchable in the eyes of the law and the community, then they return to what they initially were: alienated, misunderstood, and criticized.
Where do we draw the line in deciding against an unsuitable experience for your family and expecting all measures to be taken for you to have the same, possibly unattainable, experience as other guests? It is this very question that leads me back to my earlier mentioned point of contention: the lack of proof required to obtain special passes and accessibility. Personally, I would have no problem providing evidence of my children’s conditions if seeking assistance, or perhaps a system where you can apply for a pass ahead of time to discourage people from making exaggerations on the day-of could work. If you are a parent of a special needs child, you are rarely attending something as extravagant as Disney without planning ahead. Would a more evidence-based system cut down on the number of people taking advantage of these passes and perhaps open the door for a more intensive option for Disney to offer more severely disabled guests?
A while ago, a person commented on one of my articles with a curious comment, something along the lines of “if everyone is special then no one is.” Now given the context, I am sure it was intended to be read laced with negative connotations; however, I didn’t take it that way. It is an accurate statement and genuinely relevant to many examples of situational entitlement that we are increasingly seeing when it comes to challenging big companies. Not unlike the woman who attempted to take Disney to court over alleged discrimination whilst “training” service dogs on Disney property.
I don’t claim to have the answers, though I do feel that we need to start taking notice of how our attitudes are evolving. We need to start a conversation about reasonable expectations versus the idealism of how we wish the world could be equal for all abilities and disabilities. Where does the entitlement end and the reality that we all face different challenges begin?
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.