Friday, August 12, 2011

Summertime Disability Rights

By Visiting Associate Professor of Law and Executive Director of DRLC Paula Pearlman

This op-ed was originally published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

It's summertime. That means it is time to pack up the family for a summer vacation, near or far. Recreation is an essential part of the human experience, which everyone deserves and needs. People with disabilities should not have to go to court defending their right to have fun. This year, some of the nation's biggest, and most iconic entertainment destinations and operators are fighting against discrimination allegations.

In 2009, Joe Martinez, who uses a wheelchair because of quadriplegia, along with his wife, was among the 15.9 million visitors to the park in Anaheim. Soon after entering the Magic Kingdom, the spell began to wear off. Disney staff told the couple that they could not board the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride in his wheelchair, and that this would be the case for most of the other "accessible" rides in the park. Martinez also required the use of family or unisex restrooms, which the couple had difficulty finding because there were no signs and few employees knew where to direct them.

One of the few rides accessible to Martinez was, "It's A Small World," but while onboard, the ride malfunctioned because of a computer glitch. The staff evacuated all the guests except for Martinez and his wife .

While they were waiting, Martinez suffered dysreflexia, a medical condition caused by overstimulation of the nervous system that can quickly lead to a stroke and death if untreated. "Dysreflexia feels like your head is going to explode," Martinez explained. After about 45 minutes, the ride was finally restarted and they were able to exit. Martinez left the park with the paramedics.

This incident reveals that one of the world's busiest amusement parks is not prepared to evacuate people who use wheelchairs if a ride malfunctions or other emergency takes place, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal and state disability anti-discrimination law. The couple has filed suit against Disneyland.

More recently, in March 2011, Ms. Wheelchair California Pageant sued one of Los Angeles' largest and best known sightseeing companies, Starline Tours. The road to the lawsuit began in 2006 when Ms. Wheelchair America traveled to Los Angeles for the Rose Parade. After getting the royal treatment on the parade float, she was unable to get a seat on a tour bus.

Ruthee Goldkorn, a former Ms. Wheelchair California who serves as the state chapter's executive director, was responsible for arranging Ms. Wheelchair America's trip to California. In 2006 and 2007, Goldkorn tried to book a tour with Starline for the pageant winners but each year the ticket agent said the buses could not accommodate people who use wheelchairs. During one phone call, Starline staff offered to carry the pageant queens on board. This treatment is not only bad for business, it is in clear violation of state and federal law.

A 2010 poll by the Kessler Foundation and National Organization on Disability found that people with disabilities are less likely to socialize with family, friends and neighbors, and are less likely to dine out. The poll did not ask respondents why, but suggested that factors could include lack of accessibility, negative public attitudes, or discomfort.

The ADA prohibits private entities such as an amusement park and entities providing transportation services from discriminating against people with disabilities. The law is clear that parks and tours are required to make reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate; laws alone do not change attitudes.

Unfortunately, these entertainment companies are violating the civil rights of people with disabilities and excluding them from their services. This needlessly perpetuates a divide between people with disabilities and others. What better place for people to come together than sharing a ride at Disneyland or sitting together on a bus visiting Hollywood landmarks while on the lookout for movie stars. Let's enjoy it together.

Paula Pearlman is executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center and a visiting associate professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

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