It's supposed to be the happiest place on earth, but Disney World and Disneyland are anything but for members of the special needs community at the moment thanks to rumors spreading round the Internet. The theme parks are changing the "guest assistance cards" that parents of children with special needs have come to count on to make vacations with their kids possible. The GAC or GAP program (as its known) has long provided accommodations for children and teens with physical as well as cognitive, developmental, or behavioral challenges.
But rumors that the GAC had been stopped entirely, coupled with a huge petition to get the program back, has parents scared ... and their kids upset.
How would you explain to a child that their favorite vacation spot doesn't want them?
If you've got a neuro-typical kid, you probably haven't thought about it. I'll admit I didn't, even with a future Disney trip on my schedule. It wasn't until I stumbled on a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Shannon Rosa of Squidalicious, that I even knew parents worried that Disney was penalizing kids with special needs because of folks who have been abusing this privilege.
Maybe you heard about the rich jerks who were hiring disabled "family members" to come on vacation so they could get special perks at the parks? There was an expose on the practice a few months back, and then, suddenly, came the rumor that Disney had ended it all.
And parents freaked. For them this isn't a minor inconvenience. It's a full-blown problem. As Rosa, whose son Leo is on the autism spectrum, said on her blog:
You have to understand: our love of the GAC is not because we get to skip lines and blow raspberries at all the chumps who don't. Skipping lines is not a convenience but a necessary accommodation for our boy. Because he is autistic. Because of his specific disability.
Leo can wait in lines, but not always. Not lines of Disneyland length. Not without melting down due to the crowds, the noise, the expectation based on previous experience that he will not have to wait in lines longer than 20 or so minutes. Without the GAC, Disneyland is effectively barred to my son.
And it's not just kids with autism who are affected, here folks. Moriah Bettencourt's son, Alex (the cutie pictured above), has CHARGE Syndrome and he's considered to be deaf/blind as he has serious deficiencies in both areas. Alex, his mom says, "lives for Disneyland."
The family goes to the California amusement park two to three times a year, and they've found GAC isn't just helpful for them -- it helps the other folks in the park have a pleasurable experience BECAUSE Alex's needs are being met. As Moriah told The Stir:
When Alex was about 7 he was finally tall enough to ride some of the larger rides. At that point my husband was uncomfortable with the special needs pass and thought that we should try to stand in line to see if Alex could do it. About 10 minutes into our waiting in the Splash Mountain line Geoff was horrified when Alex suddenly grabbed two handfuls of the hair of the little girl in front of us. He didn't want to hurt her he just was fascinated by her hair that she kept swinging around but as you can imagine when a stranger suddenly grabs the hair of another stranger things get tense really quickly.
We made our profuse apologies & promptly stepped out of line, since then the GAP has been a necessity for us. Alex is unable to be that close to strangers without wanting to touch them, it's a serious issue.
Needless to say, the Bettencourts, like the Rosas, were swearing off Disney for awhile. As are hundreds of thousands of families who have been cut off. They're among the nearly 20,000 that have signed a MoveOn petition to get Disney to roll back the changes.
But they may not have to.
The good news? The Stir reached out to Disney, and they say the rumors aren't entirely true. They ARE changing the GAC process ... but it's still in place for now, and they're working with disability groups, including Autism Speaks, to make sure the new program will truly meet families' needs.
According to Michele Himmelberg, a PR director for Disneyland Resort:
We have an unwavering commitment to making our parks accessible to all Guests. Given the increasing volume of requests we receive for special access to our attractions, we are changing our process to create a more consistent experience for all our guests while providing accommodations for guests with disabilities. We engaged disability groups, such as Autism Speaks, to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry.
The new Disability Access Service Card program starts on October 9, and you can be sure parents will be watching, hoping that Disney makes the right choice for their kids with the set-up for the new program. As Shannon Rosa said:
In a fair and just society, you don't take away (or complicate) accommodations for people with disabilities just because non-disabled people are taking advantage of them and making other non-disabled people mad.
Do you use the special accommodations at theme parks? Are you concerned about the changes?
Image via Moriah Bettencourt