Dis­ney fights to keep autism law­suits from go­ing to trial

Orlando Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Gabrielle Rus­son

Walt Dis­ney Co. is fight­ing to stop tri­als for 30 law­suits in which peo­ple with autism con­tend the parks didn’t ac­com­mo­date their dis­abil­i­ties be­cause they had to wait in line for rides.

Dis­ney filed a pe­ti­tion this week ask­ing for a re­hear­ing fol­low­ing a court’s de­ci­sion in Au­gust that ruled the plain­tiffs’ com­plaints should be heard at trial, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments from the U.S. Court of Ap­peal’s 11th Cir­cuit in At­lanta.

The law­suits were filed af­ter Dis­ney re­vamped its sys­tem — which was ripe with “mas­sive fraud and abuse,” Dis­ney ad­mit­ted in court doc­u­ments — for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in 2013.

Be­fore, peo­ple were al­lowed to the front of the lines to ride at­trac­tions. The news me­dia re­ported sto­ries about rich fam­i­lies hir­ing a “tour guide’’ — some­one with dis­abil­i­ties — to take ad­van­tage of the pol­icy and skip the lines.

Now, Dis­ney re­quires peo­ple to re­serve rides and use spe­cial ac­cess cards.

But some par­ents com­plained the new pol­icy doesn’t elim­i­nate the ride wait­ing — which is es­pe­cially hard for chil­dren with se­vere autism be­cause they don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of time and are de­pen­dent on rou­tine, rid­ing at­trac­tions in a cer­tain or­der to pre­vent a melt­down, plain­tiffs have said.

In newly filed courts ar­gu­ments, Dis­ney ar­gued peo­ple with autism can have melt­downs for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, such as loud noises, lights and crowd.

The court’s rul­ing “as­sumes that Dis­ney some­how has the abil­ity, let alone le­gal obli­ga­tion, to pre­vent melt­downs with in­stant and un­re­stricted ride en­try,” Dis­ney said in court doc­u­ments.

“To im­pose such a stan­dard on Dis­ney and — inevitably — the many other places cus­tomers have to wait — sports are­nas, restau­rants, gro­cery stores, malls, doc­tors’ of­fices, movie the­atres, and other theme parks — is thus not only un­ten­able but also in­com­pat­i­ble with the way places of pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tion have op­er­ated for decades,” Dis­ney said.

Dis­ney also ar­gued the court ig­nored some of the plain­tiffs who said they stood in line be­fore with­out hav­ing any prob­lems — such as an un­named per­son who once waited 30 min­utes to ride Ep­cot’s Test Track. Dis­ney also sought to limit the num­ber of plain­tiffs, say­ing at least seven did not have se­vere autism.

The plain­tiff’s at­tor­ney could not be reached im­me­di­ately.

The law­suits have no merit and Dis­ney com­plies with ADA reg­u­la­tions, a Dis­ney spokes­woman said in a state­ment.

“Dis­ney Parks have an un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing an in­clu­sive and accessible environment for all our guests,” the state­ment said.

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