Navigating 'The Most Magical Place on Earth' Gets a Little Easier for the Visually Impaired

After facing several due process hurdles, a class action settlement requiring Walt Disney Parks & Resorts US Inc. to make its theme parks and websites more accessible to the visually impaired is finally approved.  In Shields, et al. v. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US, Inc., et al., Case No. 10-cv-5810 DMG (C.D. Cal.), plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against Disney alleging that the company violated federal and California law by discriminatorily denying visually impaired persons the benefit of the full use and enjoyment of the parks and websites owned or operated by Disney.  Disney denied plaintiffs' allegations.

Last year, the court granted, in part, plaintiffs' motion for class certification, and certified five national subclasses.  Subsequently, the parties entered into settlement negotiations to resolve the dispute.  The parties reached a settlement and submitted it to the court for approval.  The National Federation of the Blind ("NFB") objected to the settlement and raised significant due process concerns.  In response to the NFB's objections, the court twice denied approval of the parties' settlement agreement because the release, as drafted (and later revised), was over broad and prevented the visually impaired from bringing disability-related lawsuits against Disney.

A revised settlement agreement was finally reached and submitted for approval at the end of last year.  On January 28, 2013, the court entered its final approval of the parties' settlement agreement.  The court certified four national subclasses for settlement purposes only:  (1) The Website Class; (2) The Effective Communication Class; (3) The Service Animal Class; and (4) The Infrastructure Class.  Some of the more interesting relief provided under the terms of the settlement agreement include:

  1. If asked, a Disney cast member (i.e., employee) must read part or all of a menu to a visually impaired person;
  2. Disney must provide a telephone service for guests to call and have parade schedules, park hours, show information, and menus read to them;
  3. Disney must install two large Braille maps at all of the Disney parks in Florida and California;
  4. Disney must provide mobile Braille maps for the visually impaired to check out via refundable deposit;
  5. Disney is developing handheld devices that use GPS and other navigational capabilities to aid in locating attractions for the visually impaired;
  6. Disney must designate service animal relief areas;
  7. Disney must provide temporary kennels/cages at attractions at which service animals cannot ride;
  8. If you are a Disney character, you must interact with visually impaired guests with a service animal as if they had no animal;
  9. Disney must provide preferred viewing areas for parades to the visually impaired; and
  10. Disney must give 100 one-day one park passes, each, to two charities that support the visually impaired.

Under the terms of the agreement, Disney has one year to implement these changes, among others.  While it is surprising that Disney parks do not yet provide master Braille maps, some of the other relief may ignite irritation with other Disney guests.  For example, what accommodations must be made for those guests with animal-driven allergies who are waiting in line (unbeknownst to them) near a temporary kennel for service animals?  What protections will be afforded to the service animals so that other guests do not taunt the animals while their owner is riding the attraction?  These and other concerns will surely be addressed by Disney in the coming months, and it will be interesting to see how the company known for innovation and creativity implement this relief so that its visually impaired guests can get the full Disney experience.

About The Author

Erin Rhinehart | Faruki Partner