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Written by Debra Ruh, with special comments from Sam Joehl, SSB Senior Accessibility Specialist

I was perplexed when I read about a class action lawsuit against Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.

“On June 29, 2011, the United States District Court Central District of California certified a nationwide class of blind persons in a class action pending in Los Angeles against Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. The Plaintiffs expect to establish that thousands of patrons with visual impairments visit Disney’s parks, restaurants and hotels each year, and that the three named Plaintiffs’ claims are common to those of the much larger class. The Complaint does not seek money damages, but only compliance with ADA and other laws which require Disney to accommodate the needs of, and not discriminate against, its patrons with visual impairments.”

Why the surprise? The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) just awarded Disney with a 2011 Access Award. “Walt Disney Parks & Resorts in 2010 introduced a new device at its U.S. theme parks that provides audio description for its many spectacular—and hugely popular—rides and attractions. Guests with visual impairments who visit Walt Disney World® Resort in Florida and Disneyland® Resort in California can explore the parks with unprecedented freedom with the help of a 7.2-ounce wireless device. Disney’s Handheld Device provides audio descriptions of park surroundings and rides for guests with visual disabilities, closed captioning for guests who are deaf, as well as other access features at over 51 attractions domestically. Disney’s Handheld Device also lets guests choose the type of information they would like to receive about outdoor areas, from architectural elements to the location of the nearest restroom via an interactive audio menu.”

Sam Joehl had these comments on the subject:
“In the late 1990’s I visited Disney World’s Epcot Center with my family. They provided us with a Braille guidebook listing the countries and the cuisine served by the restaurants which allowed me to independently select where I wanted to dine for lunch. Disney was accommodating people with disabilities even back in the 1990s by providing guidebooks in accessible formats.

I think lawsuits like these have the potential to hurt the disability advocacy community more than help it just as the ADA lawsuit against Southwest Airlines did. The Disney suit falls into the same category of frivolous lawsuits as the NAD complaint against Netflix (who plan to caption 80 percent of their streaming content by year’s end and has offered subtitles on iOS devices since May of this year) and the NFB complaint against SSA which has one of the best Section 508 programs in the U.S. Federal Government.

All of these organizations obviously employ individuals who are deeply committed to ensure that their products and services are accessible, but they may have gaps in their accessibility policies, lack overarching corporate accessibility policies or lack enforcement of these policies across the entire organization.

Last month I went to a talk at Accessibility DC in which Dr. Chris Law presented his doctoral thesis about the business case for accessibility. Dr. Law studied organizations in Australia to determine why some were more successful at implementing end-to-end accessibility solutions than others. He came away with seven success factors which were present in every organization that implemented accessibility across their culture and their entire enterprise, and were not present in organizations that fell short of this objective in some area. More research needs to be done in this area to identify the criteria that results in effective end-to-end accessibility programs.

We need to work with organizations to get these seven success factors implemented across their entire enterprise. Instead of attacking or threatening organizations which are making a concerted effort to implement accessibility, positive relationships should be formed with the individuals spearheading these efforts to increase their influence and fill in the gaps in their accessibility policies and their implementations.

The numerous accessibility successes which were borne out of structured negotiation agreements demonstrates that companies can be convinced to provide accessible solutions by fostering positive relationships instead of taking the route of litigation. Filing lawsuits against companies for not doing what they are already doing brands us accessibility advocates as the unreasonable hysterics we are often seen to be. Litigation should be saved for the companies who are unwilling to cooperate or who fight their legal requirements. The companies who are trying to do the right thing should be encouraged to do what they’re doing even better.”

So what can be done? How can we avoid sending mixed messages from our community of people with disabilities (PwD)? What can a company do to better understand and include PwD?

There are some logical steps: make inclusion a part of your company’s culture, include accessibility in your policies and procedures, add compliance language to all IT procurements, and make accessibility part of your service and product life cycles and development.

Focus on all human touch points, HR systems, Intranet, Internet, Service Centers, Kiosks, eLearning, Online Services, Software applications, shareholder reports, marketing communications, PDF and other reports. Anywhere that you intersect with a person should have accessibility built into the process. Train your developers, testers, QA, programmers and anyone else adding content. Make inclusion and accessibility part of your organization’s culture.

Walt Disney Parks & Resorts has spent millions of dollars to include people with disabilities in their parks. They offer wheel chair rentals, services for guests with mobility, hearing and visual disabilities, lighting sensitivity, and special parking for guests with disabilities. To learn more about Disney efforts to provide accessibility visit http://www.Disneyland.Disney.go.com/help/access.

I am not here to argue the merits of the lawsuit but do think many will be confused by an award for excellence from AFB and then a lawsuit by members of the blind community.