Court Revives 30 Cases Alleging Anti-Autism Bias at Disney

ATLANTA (CN) – A lawyer lauded the 11th Circuit on Monday for reviving claims that Disney has a duty to ensure that no autistic child waits for any amount of time to go on an amusement park ride, even for repeated turns.

“They’re relieved but it’s been a long time coming to hear,” said Tampa-based attorney Anthony Dogali after the federal appeals court reversed summary judgment on 30 separate lawsuits in a consolidated ruling. “They’ve just wanted an opportunity to prove that Disney discriminates against guests with severe cognitive impairments.”

Though a federal judge had found that the demand for near-immediate ride access had more to do with the personal preferences of the parents than any neurological impairments suffered by the children, the 11th Circuit said the case involves material issues of fact that should have been left for trial.

Since 2014, Disney has faced 44 lawsuits alleging that the park operator’s Disability Access Service program, or DAS, fails to offer enough accommodations for children with autism.

Contending that autistic people have “an inability to comprehend the concept of time, defer gratification, and wait for rides,” the plaintiff parents testified about their children experiencing meltdowns at Disney while waiting for rides.

But Disney countered that such allegations are undermined by the fact that all of the plaintiff parents managed to successfully get their children to Disney via plane or car ride.

Writing for a three-judge panel on Friday, U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Mays Hull called the plaintiffs’ evidence persuasive.

“While plaintiffs’ abilities to wait in a car or plane is relevant evidence, it is not dispositive as to whether, once inside a theme park with strong stimuli of all kinds, plaintiffs can wait virtually for their pre-set, routine rides,” the ruling states. “The DAS Card does allow disabled guests to avoid the crowded and constrained conditions that exist when standing in line for a ride. But Disney theme parks are high-commotion environments and plaintiffs must virtually wait therein.”

Disney also failed to sway the court that it accommodates the families by allowing them to pass wait times for rides by enjoying other activities in the park, including other rides, parades, concerts, characters, restaurants, stores and attractions.

“The record, however, creates factual issues about whether plaintiffs are able to transition to other activities without meltdowns or other behavioral challenges when they cannot access rides in their already-fixed routine orders or cannot access the same ride repeatedly,” Hull wrote.

Hull emphasized that the lower court must conduct further analysis of what is “necessary” regarding the behavioral characteristics of plaintiffs’ disabilities.

“The DAS Card, as good as it may be, still fails to address plaintiffs’ alleged impairments of the inability to wait virtually for rides and the need to adhere to a routine order of rides or repeat rides,” the ruling states. “Because factual disputes exist as to those impairments, we must reverse the grant of summary judgment in favor of Disney on the necessary-modification inquiry.”

A Disney spokeswoman noted in a statement that the company is evaluating its next steps.

“Disney Parks have an unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all our guests,” the spokeswoman said. “The lower court concluded that we fully complied with all ADA requirements and dismissed the claims. The appellate court ruling sends the lawsuits back to the lower court for further proceedings.”

Attorney Dogali noted meanwhile that his team has plans to bring a new case that will allege intentional discrimination — a claim that the 11th Circuit found lacking in the existing cases.

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