I am not a journalist, friends. I’m a mom with a blog. While I will do my best to make this accurate and concise, I’m sharing my, rather than reporting a, story.
Although changes to Disney’s Disability Policy had long been the subject of speculation, rumors about its imminent demise hit a fever pitch on September 17th when the website Mice Age reported that the Guest Assistance Card program would be terminated on October 9th, to be replaced by the Disabled Assistance System.
This is what they said.
As we’ve outlined for you before, after years of revolving door executives not wanting to get near the GAC issue, the rampant fraud inherent in the 10 year old GAC program was brought to an embarrassing light via an expose on The Today Show last May. Only then did the executives on both coasts admit that something finally had to be done, and the existing Guest Assistance Card will cease to exist on October 9th.
In its place will be an entirely new program called the Disabled Assistance System (DAS). The DAS will work similarly to the “return passes” issued at popular rides like Star Tours 2.0 and Radiator Springs Racers, where currently a GAC holder gets a Fastpass-style return time hand written on a card based on the current Standby wait time.
And that’s when my inbox blew up. I waited as long as I could, but finally felt like I had to post something, so I wrote this.
Followed by this …
And then this happened.
Followed by this …
And then this …
And then, finally, there was this …
Followed by this, the very existence of which confounds me and the comments upon which really make me wonder about how people are choosing to use their time and energy …
(Click on the photo to read the article)
And now here we are.
The conversation was, I believe, productive. While it was arguably largely PR, it was not remotely one-sided. The woman I spoke with is Suzi Brown, Disney’s
Director of Media Relations and External Communications. Despite the fact that she is currently juggling fire, it was clear that she was unhurried. She took her time. She listened. She took notes, and she responded to each and every concern that I raised. So here goes.
This has been a PR nightmare for Disney. We all get that. They were completely unprepared to talk about the program when Mice Age reported the story. As we all know, this isn’t how Disney operates. When they roll something out, it’s well-coordinated and well-communicated. Disney is not a company accustomed to being caught on their heels. So they’re scrambling, and it shows.
Clearly, a change of this magnitude doesn’t pop up overnight. But while the new program has been in the works for months, the final procedural nuts and bolts of it were, and actually, to some degree, ARE, still not finalized. The cast-member trainers have yet to be trained. (That should be beginning by the time I publish this.) The details of the new program have yet to be internally communicated to staff. The written information isn’t ready for distribution. But here we all are asking our questions anyway. And, as I told Ms Brown, for those who have saved for years for a trip scheduled to begin on October 10th, the answers matter.
I’m going to start here: Disney gets it. They really do. And in my heart of hearts, I have to believe that they will really, truly try to make this work for our families. It’s Disney. They have long been a leader in accommodating those with differences. There’s a reason we all save our pennies to go there — because they make the effort to bring their special brand of magic to EVERYONE. I can’t, and don’t, believe that this is all just a big scheme to stop doing that.
The GAC cards aren’t just going away, they’re being replaced by a different program.
So why the relative silence from Disney so far? Well, mostly because the kinks are still being worked out and the details are not yet ready for prime time. There will be differences in implementation from park to park, and even from attraction to attraction, and they want to make sure that the procedures are communicated clearly to avoid confusion. Unfortunately, rampant speculation has filled the void, but if Disney comes out now with a half-baked communication, it will only exacerbate the confusion and our community’s attendant frustration.
While it appears that Mice Age has the broad strokes of the program right, not all of their details are accurate. Ms. Brown was not ready to go point by point, but urged our patience as all of the details will be released shortly, along with a series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions.
The company understands that the new program will present challenges for autistic guests and their families. They are keenly aware that our needs, and the accommodations that are subsequently necessary to allow our children access to the parks, can be very different from those with other types of disabilities. According to Ms. Brown, they have every intention of continuing to provide individualized assistance as it is needed, and stand by their unwavering commitment to make the parks accessible to ALL guests.
As an aside, but one that I think is necessary, much has been made over the past few days about Autism Speaks’s role in all of this. Ms. Brown was clear that they consulted with them, along with other advocacy groups, and sought their input on the new program. It’s no secret that I’ve had a number of issues with Autism Speaks in recent times, but this isn’t one of them. They were consulted, friends. They offered their suggestions and input. They did not design the program nor have a final say of any kind in how it would be shaped nor implemented. I’m happy to take aim at them when it’s deserved, but I can’t hold their feet to the fire for the way that an independent corporation ended up using — or not using — their feedback, as it were. Many of you have lamented the seemingly callous pull-quote from Matt Asner that “Change is difficult.” While I haven’t spoken to Mr. Asner, I can tell you from VERY recent experiences with the media (ya know, like yesterday), a single quote is almost never representative of a very long conversation and I am fairly certain that he had a LOT more than that to say.
Where Autism Speaks did have a great deal of impact, as I understand it, was in the creation of a guidebook for our families that will be available when the new program rolls out. According to Ms. Brown, the guide will contain extremely detailed information about each attraction, most notably assessing and describing them in terms of sensory impact, providing our families important insights that will be invaluable when planning our trips.
As for my part, I told her, as I said above, that I have a lot of trouble getting riled up about this. That I wish to God that we could get people as invested in Equal Employment Opportunities, Assisted Housing, and Education Reform as they are about a trip to the Magic Kingdom. But I also told her that I understand it, especially as it relates to those who have trips planned and have no idea whether or not those trips can still work for their families.
I told her that the parks are expensive. That families like ours save for years to make the pilgrimage, to give our kids the opportunity to enjoy something that so many of them feel so passionate about. That their willingness to accommodate our families has made them a coveted destination.
I told her that we are very grateful that they have led the way, as a shining example of a company willing to do the work to make true inclusion possible. And I told her that I was worried, because, from what I’ve heard about the new plan, I’m just not sure that we could ever make the trip work for our daughter the way we’d been able to in the past.
I explained that while it was wonderful that our children were being given the option of waiting away from the crowds that can be impossible for them to manage, that I was concerned about a number of other factors in the logistics of the plan.
I told her that walking my daughter up to a ride to get a ticket that will allow us to ride that ride LATER, would be tough. That explaining time to a child for whom it is nothing but a word would be tougher. That the conversation would likely go something like this:
Brooke, we’ll go on the Pooh ride in an hour, okay?
Is it an hour now?
— Rinse and repeat for one hour. —
I told her that figuring out how to fill that hour would be extremely tricky. Do we go to see a character? Try to game the amount of time it will take to wait? What about when the characters take a break? And our kids are confused and on the brink of melting down because they don’t understand what’s happening and we’re trying to figure out whether to leave the line or wait because we’ve got to be back to the ride on which we can now go.
I told her that the biggest problem with all of that is that after two and a half repetitions of the process, there’s a good likelihood that we will have reached the threshold of anxiety and sensory onslaught that our kids can handle and we will have just paid some $600 as a family to ride two rides and then get the hell out of dodge.
I told her WHY waiting on lines is so hard. I explained that my daughter feels physically threatened when she’s jostled or even inadvertently touched on a line. That the perceived threat can send her into flight or fight mode. That she can lash out or run. That the sensory stimulation of the various noises, particularly children talking and crying in an enclosed space, often cause her to cry out and shriek and, when severely over her limit, hurt herself. I told her that while my first concern was always my child, it was clearly not an ideal situation for those around us either.
She got it. She already knew. But I needed her to hear it from me.
I asked her about the provision of proof of diagnoses as a way to avoid the fraud that has run so rampant through their system. She said, in no uncertain terms, that it’s not an option on the table. She explained that the ADA and HIPAA laws prevent them, not just from asking for documentation, but even from asking what disability one has. They can only ask what accommodations a guest needs. So as happy as we all may be to show paperwork, it’s simply not going to be the answer.
I told her that I’d promised an adult autistic friend (and huge Disney fan!) that I’d ask about the character lines. I explained that the characters are just as big, if not a bigger, draw for many of our kids (and adults!) than the rides. I explained that some of the lines for the characters are even tougher to navigate than the ones for the attractions, now that they’ve brought them inside in a number of places. I told her about our experiences in the past with cast members seeing us struggling on those lines and scurrying us to side doors or quiet places in which to wait. I told her that we, well, I, cried in gratitude when we were “saved” from a line that Brooke simply couldn’t handle, for a princess that she desperately wanted to see. I explained that it was experiences like those that had bought them my patience and faith throughout this process.
I told her that as much as this shouldn’t be as big as employment and education and housing, in its own way, it is. Because, really, at its heart, it’s about how we, as a society, treat our children. It’s about respecting difference and understanding that what’s fundamentally fair isn’t always fundamentally the same. It’s about Disney leading the way in corporate citizenship, helping us to educate others about the vast difference between entitlement and access. Hell, it’s about magic, and the fact that in this country, we cannot and will not allow magic to be available only to those who fit a certain mold.
There was more to the conversation, but this is threatening to turn into a book, so I’ll bring us back to where I started.
This was not the way this change was supposed to be rolled out. In my humble opinion, I don’t think you have to sympathize with Disney to realize that the rational response here is to wait until we have all the information about the plan, FROM THEM, before we use our limited time and energy ripping apart others’ speculation. The plan might suck, but it also might be a lot more accommodating than we think.
As for those who have claimed that our families are “being punished” because of the acts of the few who were unscrupulous, I’d ask you to take a deep breath. A guest assistance program at a set of amusement parks is taking a new shape. That’s what’s happening. It might take some time for them to get it right. It might take some hiccups to iron out the kinks. That’s never easy, and I feel for those whose kids might get caught in said kinks and hiccups, because I know — I know — what they feel like when you’re in them.
But I also know that Disney wants to get this right. That it’s not some draconian plot to sweep our kids out of the parks. And that they will not ignore a call from a panicked mom whose family is arriving on October 10th and wants to make sure that their trip won’t be a bust.
So if that describes you, here’s my advice — wait a few days. I know that’s a lot to ask. I’d be freaking out too. But wait. The information is being internally disseminated to Disney cast members as we speak. Let them digest it. And then call Guest Services and tell them exactly what your child’s challenges are and what accommodations are absolutely necessary in order to allow him or her to access the park. Ms Brown assured me that they would triage call backs and that those with upcoming trips would be prioritized.
But also? Don’t be afraid to listen to their plan. To work together to come up with solutions to any problems that arise. The GAC was great. In fact, it was trailblazing. But it’s not the ONLY way to make the magic work.
So, as for me, I’m going to wait and see. And trust that Disney will continue to welcome families like mine into their parks and their hearts. Because that’s what they’ve always done.