Visitors with severe autism can move ahead with their lawsuits claiming Disney's U.S. parks didn't do enough to accommodate their need for scheduled routines and no waits on its rides, according to a federal appeals court.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled that plaintiffs in 30 lawsuits can proceed in a lower court with their claims against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with severe autism often have difficulties with social interaction and communication and often adhere to rigid routines.
A district judge in Florida had ruled previously that Disney was accommodating the autistic visitors and dismissed the claims in 2016. The autistic visitors appealed to the court in Atlanta.
Under the parks' current program, Disney allows visitors with disabilities to get a special card giving them an "appointment time" to get on a ride after the specified time with little to no wait. The card allows them to get unlimited "appointment times" throughout the day and allows them to get on rides immediately if the wait is less than 15 minutes. Disney workers also have the discretion to hand out readmission passes to visitors with disabilities, allowing them to get back on a ride immediately.
The plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that the autistic visitors still endured virtual waits, if not physical waits, that often resulted in "meltdowns" since people with severe autism often have an inability to wait and express distress at small changes to their routines. Disney previously had allowed visitors with disabilities to go to the front of the line but changed the program in 2013 amid reports of abuse by people without disabilities. The new program for visitors with disabilities, though, disrupted set routines on the order of rides and didn't allow autistic visitors to go on rides exactly when they wanted to, the plaintiffs said.
"It is the nature of the neurological disability that makes waiting an impossibility," the plaintiffs had argued.
The plaintiffs said a solution would be to give disabled guests a pass guaranteeing they wouldn't have to wait more than 15 minutes for all rides. But Disney argued that solution was no different than its previous program which was subject to abuse when nondisabled visitors would hire disabled guests to join their party so they wouldn't have to wait.
In allowing the lawsuits to move forward, the appeals court said that the fact-finding coming out of the trials would help determine what is considered "necessary" to accommodate autistic visitors' need for rigid routines and no waits. The judges said that Disney didn't intentionally discriminate against the autistic visitors and that the question the district court will decide is whether Disney needs to modify its policies.
In a statement, a Disney spokeswoman said the company is reviewing the decision and evaluating what next steps to take.
"Disney Parks have an unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all our guests," the statement said.