With legal action already underway in Florida for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, today saw Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sued in Los Angeles Superior Court by more than a dozen families with autistic children. Like the lawsuits on the other side of the country, Tuesday’s filing in Disneyland’s home state has to do with the program the House of Mouse introduced at its theme parks a year and a half ago for individuals with disabilities and cognitive conditions like autism. A re-filing of sorts of California-specific claims dismissed by a judge last year in the Sunshine State, the 140-claim, jury trial-demanding lawsuit (read it here) seeks wide-ranging but unspecified damages of “no less than $4,000” on multiple occasions and relief for violations of the Golden State’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and common law. It also leaves what is now a growing legal stain on highly image-sensitive Disney.
“The systems, policies and procedures associated with the Disability Access Service which Disney rolled out in October of 2013 were certain to create discrimination against Plaintiffs, and it was obvious that the community of persons with cognitive impairments would be harmed by the DAS,” says the 425-page filing, citing allegations that the company axed the long-standing Guest Assistance Card program because it cut into their tour guide revenue stream not because of potential abuse of the system. “Overtly discriminating against Plaintiffs and others like them until persons with autism and other developmental disorders simply no longer visit Disney’s theme parks will likely end any potential disruption of the ‘magical’ Disney experience enjoyed by Disney’s non-disabled guests,” it adds.
Today’s extensive complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief and damages brings the number of families in court across America against Disney over the DAS to 58. “The DAS remains a horrible device through which Disney creates the appearance of offering an accommodation to autism families, but through which it really offers, at most, nothing,” said Andy Dogali, the attorney for both today’s plaintiffs and those in Florida. In many ways a consequence of the breakup last fall of the sprawling initial complaint filed back in April 2014, a number of the families in today’s complaint detail the same “meltdown” experiences their children have had at Disney theme parks since the new system went into effect in late 2013.
“A.S.T. is incapable of understanding the concept of time, and thus cannot comprehend visiting an attraction in the present only to be told it cannot be experienced until sometime in the future,” says Tuesday’s filing of one such teen with autism. “As such, the new DAS creates avoidable stressors for A.S.T., constantly escalating his stimming patterns toward meltdowns. Since Disney’s implementation of the new DAS, A.S.T. has experienced many meltdowns at the Disney Parks.” Those self-described meltdowns have been met by indifference or outright hostility by formerly helpful Disney employees, the complaint notes. The behavior commonly has led to the families having to leave the park and hence cut very short what was expected to be a rare but pleasurable experience for their younger members.
Not that the complaint doesn’t also see a lot of good in Disney — or at least its content and merchandise.
“Perhaps ironically, Disney’s Magic often plays a role in the development of young persons with autism,” says the new filing. Parents, special education teachers, speech pathologists and other professionals who interact with autistic children on a regular basis often use Disney’s adorable and highly recognizable characters, cartoons, stories, toys, and movies to assist in opening autistic children to the world around them. Disney becomes a driving force in the lives of these children, and can become the only part of their lives that generates visible signs of fun and exuberance.”
As with the previous cases, Dogali of Tampa, FL, and Hermosa Beach’s Eugene Feldman are representing the plaintiffs.