WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE

07.17.14

Disney World Means Everything to a Special Needs Mom

The park’s staff is trained to interact with kids and adults with special needs. Their techniques could be easily adopted by other businesses. So why aren’t they?

Disney World is in the business of producing pleasurable experiences. While the success of any business always depends on its customers’ satisfaction with its products or services, at Disney World, customer satisfaction is the product. Perhaps this is part of why they have become so accomplished at a certain kind of disability accommodation. It doesn’t cost much, it’s low-tech, and could be implemented by most businesses—but isn’t.

I experienced it this past January, when my family arrived at Disney World. After a day-long drive with three young children, we emerged from our minivan cramped, cranky, and dusty with junk food. Our 6-year-old whined about how boring it was already and our 2-year-old bolted for a nose-dive into the cyclamen planted at the hotel entrance.

It was then that I had one of the most memorable vacation experiences of my life. The front desk Cast Member (in Disney World parlance, all employees are “Cast Members”) looked directly into our 4-year-old son’s eyes, said “Hello,” warmly, and waited patiently for a response.

I was blown away. I actually got a bit choked up.

Our 4-year-old, Edmund, has severe cognitive and psychomotor disabilities. He is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair for mobility. When impatient or tired, as he often is in his wheelchair, he stims: tapping his head, biting his arm, rocking. Strangers often believe, incorrectly, that he is unaware of his surroundings.

Edmund is usually treated by strangers in one of two ways: some avoid eye contact with him, while others give him a giant friendly smile and booming “Hello!” When he doesn’t respond immediately, they turn away from him, embarrassed, as if they made a faux pas in guessing that my son is socially responsive.

He is responsive, actually. Those who turn away often don’t see that he has given them a warm smile back. Sensory input doesn’t dash efficiently around Edmund’s brain. It strolls and meanders, stopping to relax on a bench for a spell and feel the fresh breeze. It can take three or four seconds, occasionally more, for him to respond when someone speaks to him. The front desk Cast Member knew this, waited patiently, and Edmund finally gave him a sunny smile and reached out to hold his hand.

The front desk was not a one-off. Almost every Cast Member, including bus drivers, cashiers, and the people dressed as characters, behaved with similar warmth and etiquette. It’s not that they treated him the same as my other kids. That wouldn’t be appropriate—he is different, after all. Like many with apraxia, he comprehends far more language than he can articulate, and it is easier for him to use sign language than oral speech. If he didn’t respond immediately, Cast Members would wait patiently or try again more slowly. When he signed, “Thank you,” many of them knew enough to understand him and sign “You’re welcome.”

Whenever we approached a ride, a Cast Member would walk right up to us and explain if and how my son could be accommodated. In many businesses, the person with whom we’re dealing is so busy pretending not to notice my son’s disability that I have to request accommodations.

Our family is fanatically loyal to accommodating businesses and avoid those that seem perplexed by us. I’m sure we’re not the only ones.

A trip to the Rockies might have been more our speed, but we chose Disney World because we wanted it to be easy. Vacations with Edmund can be logistically difficult, as we figure out how to negotiate areas that are not fully wheelchair accessible and how we can prevent him from getting overheated or overstimulated. After we had booked the trip, the news broke that Disney had made a crackdown on abuses of their disability accommodations, namely line-skipping. Instead of going straight to the front of the line, we received a card that gave us a time to return.

Some families have sued Disney over this change. They can no longer access the park because their children with special needs have meltdowns when they have to wait. They argue that Disney wanted to “cleanse its parks of what Disney views as the anti-Magic of such persons’ stimming, tics, and meltdowns.” I am sympathetic, because I have felt that from other businesses. However, all I can say is that Disney World was the place where I thought my son’s stimming and tics were most accepted.

The severity of any disability is context-sensitive. Someone in a wheelchair is far more functional in a city with curb cuts and ramps than in a city with narrow cobblestone streets and twisting stairs. At Disney World, because so many of the daily difficulties and social awkwardness were removed, my son was functionally speaking and less disabled than he had ever been.

One of the unexpected and very pleasant side effects of Disney’s treating my son like a human being was that it seemed to travel by osmosis to other guests. Perhaps due to their association with the Make-a-Wish foundation, Disney is understood as especially accommodating of kids with disabilities. Rather than pitying looks, I saw strangers grinning at Edmund’s unbounded pleasure at meeting Eeyore. Perhaps there’s a bit of paternalism in their grins—but I don’t know and, honestly, I don’t really care. Their focus, for once, was not on what my son lacks, but on what he is capable of feeling.

Some of the most important accommodations are not line-skipping, nor expensive ADA-compliant building regulations. They involve treating my son with respect. From Day One, Disney training includes teaching Cast Members the proper etiquette for people with disabilities, showing videos of interactions with people with disabilities. Don’t give up immediately if it appears a guest does not understand you. Don’t pretend you understand someone when you haven’t. Don’t pet guide dogs.

Any business can do this, or at least most of it. It can teach its employees about treating clients with disabilities respectfully.

One in 68 children are now diagnosed with autism, and of course there are many other people with cognitive and physical disabilities. We are a substantial minority. Our family is fanatically loyal to accommodating businesses and avoid those that seem perplexed by us. I’m sure we’re not the only ones. Happily, unlike many profitable investments, it just so happens that accommodating people with disabilities is the right thing to do.