Judge OKs Class Action Lawsuit Against Disney Parks on Behalf of Legally Blind

Earlier this week, Judge Dolly Gee of the United States District Court Central District of California has validated claims against Disney Parks and Resorts on behalf of plaintiffs Cari Shields, Amber Boggs and Teresa Stockton. The decision, which is available online via the plaintiffs’ attorney, offers a play-by-play in the ruling and demonstrates how each side has argued its point of view along each step of the decision process and thus, the court’s ruling.

In short, the lawsuit, which does not seek any monetary rewards, was broken down into ten different classes, identifying ten different issues that would have to be accepted as widely viewed complaints against those who are visually impaired and visited the Disney theme parks. For its part, the court reviewed complaints made at the parks in order to justify the requirement that enough guests have had the same experiences as the plaintiffs. Once requirements were satisfied, Disney Parks would argue not only the justification (in most cases), but eventually the ability for the plaintiffs to act as representatives for the class(es) in the lawsuit. One argument to dismiss Boggs and Shields as representatives for example is that they had threatened legal action against Disney Cruise Line for lack of similar accommodations. This logic backfired for Disney Parks, however, as the Court not only failed to see how a separate legal entity was related to the case at hand, but the fact that it showed the plaintiffs believed in their cause and showed commitment to it.

Of the initial ten defined classes (identified sources of issues for the legally blind) named in the suit, the Court ultimately found five to withstand all the requirements to be able to move forward with. Those include:

Plaintiffs allege there is lack of braille, large-print and other alternative signs, menus, maps and schedules to be found around the resort. Disney argued with evidence citing that only 10% of legally blind make use of braille and that requests for braille items is considered atypical (and thus fails to meet one of the legal requirements to proceed). Where the Court does stand behind the class, however, is that plaintiffs have alleged that cast members have refused to read menus to them.

Another area in which Disney’s argument backfired against them is in the use of kennels. Originally seeking relief against the cost of the use of kennels for service animals, the ability to tie up the service animal near an attraction and the lack of designated areas for service animals to defecate within the park, the first two claims were dismissed based on lack of complaints from other guests. The inability to locate area for service animals to defecate, however, stood up and the Court found that Disney’s response that all a visually impaired guest need to do is ask a cast member suggests that any such designated spot is difficult to locate. Additionally one plaintiff recalls being told by a cast member that she must take the dog to the kennel located at the front of the park and another guest complaint noted that the spot designated by the cast member was extremely remote.

Disney had difficulty finding an argument that held water with the Court on this issue, in which plaintiffs assert that as Disney Parks refuses to offer cast members to assist visually impaired guests inside the park, that they must bring someone with them and pay full price for admission. Here, Disney argued that there wasn’t enough unified complaints, stating some guests asked for discounted tickets and some asked for free, but the Court accused Disney of ‘splitting hairs’ and dismissed that argument. Disney then argued that lines should be drawn that those that would receive free or discounted admission should be paid medical personnel and not friends or family that would otherwise enjoy amenities of the parks. This argument too was dismissed.

Plaintiffs allege discrimination against the visually impaired because some guests have been actively denied access to the handicap viewing area, simply because they weren’t in wheelchairs. One guest complaint included a scenario in which the complainant’s daughter was refused front viewing for a parade and had to stand behind a guest in a wheelchair at the insistence of a cast member. The class also included shows, but the Court had found no evidence to support that aspect of the class, so it was modified to address just parades.

Plaintiffs allege that the Disney Parks websites are incompatible with screen reading software (with one plaintiff stating she had tried six different versions) and a guest complaining that the flash-based calendar (on Disneyland.com) automatically rendered it unusable with screen reading software. Disney’s arguments, one of which I failed to understand completely regarding the use of Disney Online’s navigation bars, also included the notion that there was ‘no accepted accessibility standard’ and that since the Department of Justice has ‘yet to determine which standards would apply to websites’ makes the issue moot.

Another class worth noting, which didn’t make the final cut, was the audio accessible device, presumably the one so lauded by Disney and the American Foundation for the Blind. This class failed to be accepted by the Court because although there were many issues and complaints associated with the device, it failed to satisfy the legal requirements. One plaintiff alleged that the device turned itself off and had no way to turn it back on without returning to Guest Relations for assistance, but other complaints included: the device not working at all; available only in English; inadequate audio descriptions and food menus; lack of GPS technology; lack of knowledge of operational use by cast members; lack of power button; inability to use device hands-free; and ambient noise drowning out audio — to name some.

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