Disney fans say changes to disability program exclude many people who were previously covered

Disney fans say changes to disability program exclude many people who were previously covered

Disney fans with disabilities say the company’s new restrictions on a system that previously allowed people with many kinds of disabilities to avoid standing in long lines for rides have now excluded many disabled people who previously had access to it. 

The new rules limit the service to only people with a “developmental disability such as autism or a similar disorder,” according to the Disability Access Service (DAS) policy. Previously, the policy allowed any guests “who have difficulty tolerating extended waits in a conventional queue environment due to a disability” to register for DAS, which was typically granted after a phone call made to the company. Disney said its changes are in response to the number of DAS users triplicating over the past few years.

Disney fans are pushing back on the changes by sharing their experiences with trying to renew DAS on social media and organizing online. 

More than 18,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Disney executives to readjust the new policy. The petition was started in April by a group called “DAS Defenders,” which describes itself as a “grassroots alliance of over 2,600 members,” launched in response to the announcement of DAS changes. The group also sent a letter to Disney executives asking to revise the policy. The company has yet to respond to the group.

“Historically, Disney has been a symbol of inclusion, acceptance, and joy for disabled individuals who often face discrimination, lack of access, and challenges in managing complex conditions,” the letter said. “However, with these recent changes, Disney has eroded that legacy by rolling back accommodations that have existed for years, leaving many disabled people feeling abandoned.”

Disney World began enforcing the new DAS rules on May 20. Disneyland will begin enforcing the same rules June 18. 

At each attraction, guests enrolled in DAS receive a pass to return to the attraction through an expedited entry line after the same wait time they would have waited in the regular line. That separate line is the same one guests can access by paying for Disney’s Genie+ service, which is designed to move much faster and have fewer people in it than the regular line. The paid Genie+ system replaced the previous free FastPass system in 2021.

A Disney spokesperson said: “We take great pride in and understand the importance of accessibility at our theme parks and that is why we have a comprehensive website of innovative services along with a team of Cast Members to help our guests make the most of their experiences.”

Disney also pointed to its other accommodations for guests with disabilities, such as the ability to rent mobility aids, sign language interpreters, and dietary accommodations.

An NBC News search of Facebook, Reddit and X (formerly Twitter) returned more than 30 social media posts since May 20 from people who said they have disabilities, sharing their experience of either being personally denied DAS under the new changes or witnessing a spouse, child, parent or sibling with disabilities be denied. The posts included people who said they have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, Type 1 diabetes, prosthetic limbs and more.  

NBC News spoke to two people who said they were previously granted DAS but were denied when they reached out to renew in May, after the changes were made. Both people said they will no longer be able to ride major attractions at Disney World without DAS accommodations. 

Christine, who spoke on the condition her last name not be published since she works for a third party on Disney property, has a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia, which causes an irregular heartbeat. She shared medical documentation of her diagnosis with NBC News. Christine said she has also passed out in a Disney World queue before, after waiting in a long, outdoor line. But when she tried to register for DAS again, she was told she was no longer eligible.  

During her call with Disney in May, Christine said that the employee initially said she seemed like a good fit for DAS. But when she was connected to a second person, referred to as a health professional, Christine said she was denied.

“For this to be happening post-Covid, when so many people who were not disabled before have discovered they have long Covid or have invisible disabilities,” Christine said. “It does kind of feel like a betrayal.” 

Before the DAS changes were implemented, there was also widespread sentiment among Disney fans and even Disney itself that people without disabilities were “abusing” the system, using it to avoid standing in long lines even if they didn’t have a disability that would prevent them from doing so. Christine said that Disney’s decision to restrict eligibility punishes people with disabilities for the actions of a few individuals who may have tried to “cheat the system.” 

The changes to the DAS reflect shrinking accommodations for people with disabilities, said Maria Town, the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. 

“Today we are seeing a greater rate of people becoming disabled because of the result of conditions like long Covid. It’s estimated that the continued Covid pandemic has produced 2 million more disabled people than we would have seen at this point in time,” Town told NBC News, referencing a figure from the Brookings Institution. “We have seen a contraction of accommodations as the public health emergency for Covid has ended.”  

Town said she began hearing from people with disabilities and their families as soon as the new changes to the DAS were implemented. She said the new eligibility requirements exclude people with chronic health conditions, as well as non-apparent disabilities, like heat sensitivity, based on how Disney’s current policy is written. 

“When I saw the changes, one of the things that was so concerning to me was the way that the new eligibility requirements really restrict the types of disabilities that can get this pass,” Town said. “That kind of change actually goes against the ways that the disability community has worked to frame disability policy.” 

For guests who were denied DAS, one of Disney’s alternatives is the return-to-queue system, which would entail entering the normal line and exiting if they can no longer wait in it, with the ability to receive a pass to return to their place later. Christine said this isn’t an option for many people with disabilities, in part because it could lead to an emergency occurring in the regular line. 

“Ultimately, it did seem like the professional and the cast member both agreed that none of the alternative suggestions they made would really be healthy or workable for me, but they weren’t willing to offer it to me, and we left the call knowing I wasn’t going to be comfortable riding many of the attractions,” Christine said (Disney refers to its employees as “cast members”). “I won’t be able to get full use out of my annual pass. It was a very strange experience.”

Kat Tenbarge

Kat Tenbarge is a tech and culture reporter for NBC News Digital. She can be reached at Kat.Tenbarge@nbcuni.com

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