Please Make Room for Those Needing Special Assistance

In the late 1960s a young army nurse, while trying to protect and restrain an out of control patient, was kicked in the spine and her life was forever changed. While she was spared paralysis, she was told that she would not be able to walk within a few years and would suffer from intense chronic pain the rest of her life. However she proved the doctors wrong and despite the pain, managed to live her life on crutches for the next 50 years and now in her 70s continues to push past more pain than she should ever have to, to try to experience a world that is not built for her as best she can. 

In 2009, the movie Avatar came out and burst box office records. The movie had special significance for this woman, and I imagine many disabled individuals around the country. The film centered around a disabled veteran, like herself, who gets a chance to leave the troubles and frustration of his body behind and experience the joy of being able to take his body for granted again through the Avatar program and use it to go on spectacular adventures. She fell in love with the story, watched it again and again, even had an illustration of Jake riding a banshee join her growing collection of tattoos. You can imagine the excitement she felt when she heard that Disney was going to build the world of Pandora just down the street from her house. She waited eagerly, for over half a decade, for the day to arrive that she too could experience the spectacular sights and journey of the film in real life.

That woman is my godmother and alas, her rite of passage hasn’t happened. Its been hard for her to justify the effort and pain to even get to the land, when she knows it’s not built for her. There are two rides in Pandora: The World of Avatar. She can go on neither. 

Navi River Journey is a slow moving boat ride, the kind of thing she might have been able to go on 20 years ago but now? There is no level boarding, she must take two very large steps down to get into the boat and then once the ride is over, be able to stand up again and climb out.  The benches in the boats are low to the ground, she doesn’t have the strength in her legs or the pain tolerance to stand up from the low position or to climb out – and doesn’t want to be part of a scene in the loading area with everyone watching as people have to lift her out. 

Flight of Passage poses even more issues. Even if she weren’t prone to motion sickness with screens, the walk to the attraction itself would be a struggle with the 3-4 four story ramp that makes up the queue. The attraction isn’t even fully wheelchair accessible – with guests needing to transfer to special wheelchairs to even get to the ride, if their own doesn’t measure up. Once in the ride she’d have to transfer to a saddle-type seat, which is a complete non-starter for someone with her conditions. Even if she could physically support herself in such a seat, it’s likely the restraints wouldn’t accommodate her size. So she doesn’t go. She quite understandably doesn’t want to subject herself to an experience like that.

How is it that a land based on a movie that centers around a disabled character can get accessibility so wrong? Jake Sully likely wouldn’t be able to experience the attractions based on his own story without someone physically carrying him on.

This is not a problem unique to Pandora. This is a pervasive issue across the entire themed entertainment industry. Forbidden Journey opened not able to accommodate larger people. Amputees have been prohibited from riding Tower of Terror. Shanghai Disneyland, one of the largest parks Disney has ever built, has no transportation attractions. Wheelchair users are routinely excluded from attractions at Disneyland and told a recording on a TV is a similar alternative. It is frankly inexcusable and appalling. Theme parks seemingly spend more effort on creative solutions to accommodating people’s baggage than on the people themselves.

I myself have experienced this first hand. For most of my life I have been in a fatter than average body and in my teenage years was even more-so. I vividly remember the shame and humiliation of needing to use the “fat seat” on roller coasters and the fear and dread that the harness might not close this time. A fear and dread made all the worse with the presence of friends and an audience of impatient tourists trapped behind the gates watching. A humiliation made even more intense as an underpaid and beleaguered operator would force the harness down trying to turn it into a human cookie cutter. I know of people who were turned off theme parks forever because of such experiences in their formative years. How is this acceptable? Is this what we want? To turn people away from this beautiful and amazing art forever? Theme parks should be for everyone, not just the thin, and able, (and increasingly upper-middle class) among us. 

And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. Other than ignorance and carelessness. What excuse are we supposed to accept from organizations that make their business conjuring the impossible into reality? These problems are being created by the same people that build floating mountains and link up roving robotic arms with carousels. You’re telling me they can’t figure out a way to have level boarding? To put a wheelchair on a boat? 

Of course not. The problems aren’t difficult to solve, in fact they are inconsistently solved already. Some rides, like Toy Story Mania, go out of their way to provide alternatives. It’s a Small World does put wheelchairs on boats. Some, like Forbidden Journey, do enormous engineering to accommodate one type of visitor while seemingly forgetting others. It takes making accessibility a priority instead of treating people that don’t match up to some false notion of “normal”  or “reasonably disabled” as aberrant after-thoughts. Theme parks should be places that uplift people and fill them with joy – not fill them with shame or grief because they feel they don’t belong.

EVERY ride needs to be fully wheelchair accessible. EVERY ride needs to be able to seat people with larger bodies. Every ride needs to think about people who might have chronic pain, or have issues with intense movement, or speak another language, or who aren’t agile. How is this still an issue? The ADA was passed in the 90s. Some Epcot ride systems were solving these issues in the 80s. And yet here in 2018 most modern rides are only slightly more accessible than a 1950’s Radio Flyer. And some less.

 It’s often the smallest things. Not just the restraints or vehicles. Just think about that moving platform, that step up or down, that slope and length of ramp, that seating configuration, that park size, that lack of shade, that escalator, that walk from the parking garage, that doorway, that highly public positioning of the transfer area, that need to stop the ride, that isolation, that extra time, that seat that lets the legs dangle, that lap bar that is limited by the largest person in a row of 7, that spinning vehicle, that bumpy track, that boat that is stopped by running into the one in front, that distance between the seat and the ground, that rotating restaurant floor, that bus that takes 5 minutes to secure a chair, that entrance on the second floor and the grade to get there, that turning radius in the queue, that row elevation blocking the view of a shorter person, that bench that doesn’t have a backrest, that seat without a cushion, that sightline from the wheelchair section, that extra marginal burden. These are issues that can and do affect everyone, not just the people that pop up in the fore of our minds when we hear “accessibility”. Don’t revert to an attitude of “well, you have the draw the line somewhere”. No. That’s bullshit. Don’t revert to an attitude of “well it’s too expensive”. No. If you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fake rocks and bringing in weavers and thatchers from halfway around the world, on towering castles, and the latest in robotics, you can spend the money on accessible vehicles, ride systems, and queues. You can spend the money on making seats a couple inches bigger, on adding backrests, on stationary or limited motion modes, on alternate language devices, audio description, and closed captions. These steps improve the experience for  everyone, not just those at the margins. No one is going to complain about the average seat getting bigger or the option to not spin in circles after eating a deep fried dole whip. If a guest is capable of getting themselves into your park then it is your responsibility to do everything in your power to make every experience possible available to them. We call them guests, we call them the audience; they deserve to be treated like guests and given the same show as everyone else.

The next time you’re designing an attraction take a look at that draft of the warning sign that will be posted at the front.  Ask yourself if there’s a way that “expectant mothers, people with heart, neck, or back problems, high blood pressure –  those prone to motion sickness or made uncomfortable by enclosed dark spaces, simulators, or spinning – those with sensitivities to loud noises, fog and strobe effects – those that can’t transfer or will be restricted by restraints due to body shape or size” can experience the attraction. Can the ride be designed in a way where special accommodations aren’t necessary? At least some of the time? For the special accommodations that are necessary, how can they be presented in the easiest and most dignified way? Go into any modern, decent restaurant these days and they won’t have a sign posted at the door  saying “those with food allergies don’t come in”. No, that’s recognized as absurd. Instead the chef is brought out and multiple options presented. And yet way too often in the themed entertainment world accessibility approaches seem to be all or nothing.

It is a lazy and entitled, naive, oblivious approach to act as if those that fall outside your expectations don’t merit your attention To act as if accommodating a person in one place is akin to accommodating them in all. To act as if singling people out for accommodation is the same as building experiences that do it inherently. To act as if designing for the mythical average is all one needs to do. It is not and never has been enough. For decades parks have been asking people to “slide to end of the row and make room for everyone”. It’s time they did too.

2 thoughts on “Please Make Room for Those Needing Special Assistance”

  1. Excellent article! One potential way to tackle this issue is of course to hire disabled people for consultation during the design process. No one understands the pitfalls better than people who have had to live with them for years, decades, or their entire life.

    Several months ago after a knee injury, I found myself doing the Wheelchair Experience at Disneyland. On the whole, I found the accommodations mostly adequate…but then I was already intimately familiar with the park and had the assurance that my situation was temporary and that there were fully abled trips in my future. For someone with permanent disability, the lack of accessibility on many attractions must be much more frustrating.

    This also adds a new dimension to one of my long-standing bugbears: the insistence by many theme park *fans* that every new attraction must be a state-of-the-art thrill ride (“E ticket” in the common parlance, though I think that term is problematic). There is nothing inherently wrong with a ride where bone-jarring movement is part of the experience (and thus people for whom bone-jarring movement is a specific problem might be out of luck). But it points to the need for an adequate list of gentler rides so those people can still have a full day at the park.

    Being in a wheelchair is tough enough; people shouldn’t have to accept being benched as well.

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