An Open Letter to Disney World.
To whom it may concern:
My son, Nikolas was in your parks during Christmas break 2015. He was there with his aunt, he was there with an annual pass I purchased for him, and he was there because of his love for Disney World. He was not there however with an adequate disability pass, because as we know it was decided that due to the unfortunate corruption of a few, my son and others with disabilities/ special needs (visible or not) have had to pay the price by no longer being properly and appropriately accommodated.
My son has a developmentally delayed form of autism. He struggles with certain aspects of everyday life and becomes extremely anxious in certain situations.
Doctors, therapists, teachers and science have declared my son to be a "severely autistic savant" with a current developmental age of approximately 8 years old.
He is a brilliant, gifted, compassionate, beautiful and hilarious child with gifts too many to list. His speech, patience, inquisitive nature, intelligence, sense of humor, sense of danger and all around desire of general knowledge grows daily, but his social development takes a little longer to progress.
Nikolas is 16 and 6'7", he is our gentle giant, but as much as his age reflects a teenager (as he himself will tell you) and his size a pro athlete, (as most that meet him will say) he is truly still a child.
Some more compassionate people see a person, with certain difficulties, but many others see a nuisance- that can't be tolerated. It's an unfortunate reality that we have simply grown to expect, but in no way, shape or form accept. We have just learned to accept that we can't expect the best from people all the time.
On this last visit, he had (as always) a great time, albeit highly stressful because of the anxiety he suffers having to run back and forth through the park making sure he makes all the times dictated to him (and my sister) by the makeshift disability pass/ "fast pass" system that has replaced the once very useful disability access pass he was able to receive.
My sister, on the other hand, not only dealt with the established stress one has grown to expect with the change, but also had the displeasure of encountering rude employees that had no time to answer miscellaneous questions that arose. One incident in particular was at a video game, where the attendant not only spoke to her in a condescending way, but proceeded to make fun of my son for not knowing how to play a pirate game he had never experienced before.
Unfortunately, and far more disconcerting, was an incident with a "guest" who apparently could not accept my son for who he is, and decided to take it upon himself to "teach him a lesson".
Basically, a man, while standing in line in front of my family, decided to stomp/dig his heels into my child's toes so hard that my son yelped in pain. Not realizing the magnitude of the assault at the time my sister simply thought it to be an accident- unfortunately it is hard to believe it was an accident, because of the degree of injury my son suffered.
My son has two black bruises on both his big toes caused by "the man with boots that stepped on Nikki" as my son has stated repeatedly. He is in pain, and doesn't want to wear his sneakers, because it hurts him.
We suspect that this disgusting act was due to Nikolas being "annoying"(as people sometimes perceive my son to be) or simply (as we know it to be true) he was just being a kid.
Talking a lot, making noises, fluttering his fingers excitedly, anxiously awaiting his turn, moving "too much" and not realizing that there are maliciously, intolerant people; he unfortunately got too close for too long. The man, not being able to find a better way to express his discomfort and/or anger (although my sister was by Nikolas' side the entire time and he could have simply said, excuse me, he's bothering me) decided to handle the "situation" his own, aggressive and cowardly way.
This incident is the result of poor planning and execution, due to the lack of understanding of what the original disability passes offered families.
You see, the passes were not a way to have some kind of VIP access, they were a way to insure that children and adults with varying special needs (along side their families) could enjoy the parks with comfort and ease, creating the wonderful memories Mr. Disney himself envisioned and promised so long ago, without fear of injury, judgment or vitriol.
I believe it is time once again to begin a clear and open discourse on the topic of the proper accommodations of varying special needs in the Disney parks. I believe you need to involve more special needs families to be part of the process, and ultimately the decision.
The truth is, that the changes that were made did not put people with disabilities first- in anyway. The changes were simply made to accommodate the people who see "special needs" as a way to make things "unfairly easy"... I assure you- there is nothing "easy" about having to live amongst people that have little patience, little acceptance, and little to no tolerance.
I believe it is time to create a better disability training program in your parks so that employees know how to approach certain issues with a sense of knowledge, empowerment, and empathy, as opposed to ignorance and haphazard care.
Disney world is supposed to be a magical place where you escape reality for a little while. It's where the wish your heart made comes true for a few fleeting hours, before it all goes back to being a dream. It's the awesome place you go back to-if you're lucky- time and time again. First as a kid, then a parent, and maybe if you're very lucky as grandparent. It's where you honeymoon. It's where you eat gigantic turkey legs. Its's where you get an autograph from goofy and cherish it no matter how old you are. It's the place we escape to, knowing that soon enough we will return to a world that is real and hard, and many times highly disappointing.
It's sad that Disney has gotten so far from its once upon a time, simple and sweet mission statement of: "Make People Happy."
To its more current and disturbing one: "The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world."
That cold, sterile, "business is business" talk is, in my opinion, another reason why this recent miserable experience occurred.
I believe it's time for Disney to get back to its magical roots, even if just for an iota of what it once was.
Maybe profitability is the bottom line, but it's us, the people that bring you that bottom line, and it is your responsibility to give us an amazing experience in return.
I truly hope and look forward to seeing a change happen soon, before a more tragic incident is to occur, if it hasn't already.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
(Attached is a pic of my son's toes, as of today. The bruising has gone down, but it has been over 4 weeks and it's still very obvious and painful)