As my mother once observed to me, “A day at the beach with your family is no day at the beach.”
This is no reflection on the members of my family. Looking at them with a cold unbiased journalistic eye, I can observe clearly that I happened to wind up with the three most amazing kids ever. Total coincidence, right? But there you have it.
Traveling with three kids under the age of 10 is, generally speaking, unrelaxing. One of my kids, however, has cognitive disabilities and is a wheelchair user. Plenty of travel destinations—including the beach—remain difficult to manage or entirely inaccessible.
In the past, we once chose to go to Disney World. A Disney resort can be a relief for a parent if one of your kids has a disability. You are in a hermetically sealed bubble world in which the kids will be highly entertained, food will be readily (if expensively!) available, and most stuff that you’d want to visit will be accessible to all kids.
On our last trip, the Cast Members (this is what workers at Disney resorts are called) didn’t bat an eye at kids with disabilities. They positively fawned over my son with disabilities, who lapped it up. That attitude tended to trickle down to other guests, who regarded him less warily and more warmly than strangers usually do. Sappy grins all around.
Disney really does have that making-families-happy thing down to a near science.
A Disney vacation was, for us, a path of parental least resistance. And I suspect that’s why many families with kids with disabilities choose similarly.
This coming August, we had plans to be in California anyway, and decided to go to Disneyland for our first real family vacation since our trip to Disney World two years ago. But that decision is turning out to be more stressful than expected.
A couple of years ago, Disney faced a scandal due to its unusually forward-thinking accommodation of disabled people. Disabled people used to go right to the head of those long lines. At a Disney resort, being disabled was a positive advantage.
Of course, you know, rich Manhattanites had to ruin a good thing somehow. These rich Manhattan parents, it turned out, had hired disabled people as “guides” to cut long lines for rides.
At the moment of embarrassing exposure, Disney faced a corporate dilemma. It could double down on its long-standing and strong support of people with disabilities and their families. Or it could back down, and take the position that it is better to fail to accommodate a few people rather than let a few free riders slip by.
They chose the latter.
There are lawsuits pending about their failure to accommodate certain riders in terms of cutting lines.
My first trip to Disney World was actually taken under the beginning of the new regime, and it went fine, so I suppose I have every reason to expect the new trip will go well too. But it’s the fact that I can’t be sure about that ahead of time that’s driving me up a wall.
My son has many disabilities, but probably the most salient one besides his wheelchair will be this: His brain cannot regulate his body temperature well at all. He can overheat very easily, even at balmy temperatures (75-80 degrees Fahrenheit). Even in the shade.
I tried to call Disneyland’s Guest Services to see what could be arranged. I don’t want to fly all the way out there to find we can’t go on any ride that has any line whatsoever.
Guest Services told me that accommodations cannot be arranged ahead of time. When I arrive, I was told, the very first thing we’re supposed to do is show up the Guest Services on site. But trust them, trust them, my son will be accommodated. And our family will have a magical vacation.
-But my son gets overheated? (I said)
Don’t worry, those lines are in the shade.
-He gets overheated even in the shade. At surprisingly low temperatures.
You’ll be accommodated.
-I can bring a doctor’s note.
Don’t bother. No one will even read the doctor’s note.
That is their official policy. The Guest Services telephone experience was just a wee bit similar to hitting your head against a brick wall repeatedly.
After that unfruitful conversation, I’ve tweeted twice to @Disneyland asking for advice. No response. Literally none.
Ever feel like you’re yelling into a giant empty mouse hole?
A spokesperson for Disneyland confirmed that when our family arrives, the Cast Member who will decide what his accommodations are is not actually a doctor. He or she need not have received credentialed training other than by Disney in how to assess disabilities nor how to accommodate people with disabilities.
When asked why Disney can’t work with families ahead of time to arrange accommodations ahead of time and reduce planning stress, the spokesperson suggested that Disney can’t start looking at doctor’s notes because it would represent a violation of HIPAA.
However, HIPAA is a law guaranteeing patient privacy. If parents voluntarily present such notes, it’s certainly not a violation of HIPAA.
Why not work with families ahead of time, giving families the chance to opt out if Disney will not be able to meet their needs?
My son’s heat intolerance is certainly not immediately apparent. If it isn’t accommodated, our vacation gets a suddenly much more unpleasant. Given that we are spending literally thousands for this vacation, Disney is asking our family to take a huge financial risk on them.
And there are plenty of children with disabilities less visible than my son’s.
I’m sure we’ll have a perfectly lovely vacation. But in their rush to reassure non-disabled families that it was cracking down on free riders, Disney resorts have become much less of a haven for families with children with disabilities than they once were.
Until we get there, I keep wondering if we should have opted for some days at the beach.