Just when my husband Patrick and I have been encouraged by the positive feedback that Right Footed movie has been receiving, a recent experience at an amusement park enlightened us just on how much more work is needed to ensure people with disabilities can access their rights—in this case, the right to scream, smile, and have fun.
Patrick and I were in Florida for the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival in November. We had an extra day, so we decided to go to Universal Orlando because we both love theme park rides. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of going on rides at Universal Studios Hollywood with my brother and sister. I loved the E.T. Adventure and Jurassic Park rides and seeing Jaws on the Studio Tour.
That morning, we were so excited that we were there 30 minutes before opening. At the gate was a sign that said, “People with Disabilities, Go to Guest Services,” so we made our way there as soon as the gate opened.
At Guest Services, they issued me a special disability pass and a rider’s guide for people with disabilities. Without any discussion, we took these, and made our way to the first ride, the “Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit” roller coaster. The Rider’s Guide, as well as Universal Studios’ website, had the following notes on the ride:
“This ride employs safety restraints which may not accommodate certain people due to their body shape or size”. It went on to describe a number of requirements including that the rider be able to “continuously grasp with at least one upper extremity.”
When we arrived at the ride, it was obvious from the seat display that the mentioned restrictions applied to my particular condition of being armless, and so I insisted that Patrick go on the ride while I waited for him on a nearby bench. “I’ll just go on the next one,” I thought to myself.
I was mistaken. As we looked at the rider’s guide, we became increasingly dismayed. We checked the rides one by one, and discovered that seemingly every single one, even the gentle kiddie rides, were deemed unsuitable for a person like me.
We were excited when we saw that the “Shrek 4-D” ride listed no restrictions for amputees. Shrek 4-D is a theater-style ride described in the rider’s guide as “involving loud noises, strobes, fog effects, and sudden movement, which could aggravate certain medical conditions. Stationary seating is available…” Finally, I would get my chance. As we waited in line, an attendant came up to me and told me that I had to sit on a stationary seat in the front row. Without arguing, we made our way to the front row and I sat on a stationary seat. When the ride was finished, Patrick turned to me and said he could not understand why I could not be in a moving seat considering how simple the movement was. There was not even a seatbelt in the moving seats.
We decided to pay Guest Services a visit, and asked to speak to the manager. A lady told us that she would be happy to refund the price of our tickets and register our concerns in their computer system. At that point, the manager walked over, and I explained that my main frustration is not just about the restrictions.
I understood that these are manufacturer-imposed restrictions and that the theme park could not do anything about that. I was frustrated that the theme park was being advertised as a welcoming environment when my experience of being excluded just demonstrated that it is not. People like me would benefit from being better informed about the park’s policies on disabilities so that we could find better use of our time. Not knowing that I could not go on the rides, I chose to spend my one free day Florida at Universal Orlando, only to find out—after paying for tickets and entering the park—that I would be sitting on a bench the whole time.
I fully understand that safety is, as it should be, the utmost priority. It is understandable that I am restricted from a roller coaster ride, but there was really no reason for me to be kept from a moving seat in a theater. Due to the park's broad restrictions, I was effectively discriminated against. How is it possible to be in a country that will allow a woman without arms to fly an airplane and yet be prevented from going on amusement park rides?
I felt ignored, unseen, not taken into account. I know from experience that this often how people with disabilities in developing countries feel, but it was jarring to feel this way in the U.S. in 2015.
At Universal, I was no longer the first armless pilot who flies a plane with her feet. I was back on the playground at my pre-school, standing on the sidelines, watching the other kids play. I remembered wanting so much to do everything else the other children were allowed to do. I wanted to climb up that 12-foot slide that towered high above everything else, but the playground monitors were afraid I would fall off the ladder. I wanted to run as fast as I could but everyone told me to slow down. They wanted to protect me, but they limited me.
Considering how much the advocacy for people with disabilities has grown, it is disheartening to note that the evolution in this particular case has been towards exclusion rather than inclusion. I am saddened to think that children with disabilities born after my generation may never have the magical experience of a theme park ride.
As soon as I was back home, I made a follow-up call to Universal Studios. I was promised that my concerns would be documented, because they are feedback-based company. However, I was also told that their policies are cut and dried and are there for safety reasons. Basically, I was told that nothing could be done.
I also decided to reach out to Universal Creative, the manufacturers of the rides at Universal Studios, hoping to reach someone who would be would be willing to explore the possibility of changing restrictions so that the limitations on each ride can be tailor-fitted to specific disabilities. I have yet to receive a return call.
I have to admit here, I’m not sure what concrete actions I can take to change this situation. I’m hoping that by telling my story publically in this blog, Universal might at least engage me further in discussion. They can tell me I can’t go on their rides, but they can’t stop me from pushing for change.
If anyone has any suggestions for how I can next proceed, please email me J.Cox@hi.org