Appeal Partially Successful, Autism Lawsuits Against Disney to Proceed

Ongoing lawsuits by 30 individuals who allege discrimination against autistic or cognitively disabled guests by Disney may continue, thanks to a ruling on Friday. While the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals did support a previous ruling that no evidence was submitted to claim Disney intentionally discriminated against the disabled guests, it overturned rulings that said plaintiffs didn’t show necessary harm from the policies to go to trial as well as an inquiry for modification to those policies.

The plaintiffs are arguing that Disney’s current policy for disabled guests, the Disability Access Service Card, does not adequately provide those with autism or cognitive disabilities the same park experience as other guests. They claim that many of those affected have an inability to wait for attraction, even a virtual wait outside of the ride’s queue and that for some, attractions must be ridden in a specific order, sometimes multiple times in a row, to avoid a meltdown.

Disney supports their current policy, saying that it allows for reduced waits and advanced scheduling. The company argues that the affected guests could schedule FastPasses in advance for 3 rides, use a DAS Card to avoid lines at a fourth ride, and continue to get Re-ad Passes for subsequent rides. Disney also noted that along with an advanced planning guide, it offers affected guests in-person assistance at Guest Services, which will provide them with personalized help planning their day using this system.

Plaintiffs have stated that “their children with severe autism cannot comprehend the concept of time, which is the fundamental aspect of understanding that waiting in the present will produce something positive in the future,” so any wait, even a virtual wait, is still damaging for them.

The district courts summary judgement this appeal addresses found in favor of Disney because “(1) Disney provided plaintiffs an opportunity to gain a like benefit from its parks that is enjoyed by nondisabled individuals; (2) plaintiffs can all wait in a car or a plane to get to Disney’s parks, and therefore plaintiffs can wait virtually with a DAS Card to access rides at scheduled times; and (3) DAS is an existing means to equal access.”

The judgment of this appeal is that Disney did not violate the ADA by intentionally discriminating against their autistic or cognitively disabled guests, but plaintiffs will still have the opportunity to prove that the theme park giant did not make the necessary modification to provide equal access to them. To do this, they will need to provide evidence and arguments supporting the idea that their requested modifications are both “reasonable” and “necessary” and do not “fundamentally alter the nature of” Disney parks.

This case is unique in the fact that Disney does not differentiate between severity levels of autism or cognitive disorders, and given the immense volume of visitors does not ask for proof of disability beyond a verbal confirmation from the guest. Modifications to their current disability programs could have an impact on these factors.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals

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