Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Handy-Service for the Handicapped and Disabled at Disney

After hearing a synopsis of this article on the radio this morning, I found myself feeling violently ill--sick, outraged, and downright disgusted.  I could sit here and name all of the reasons why this article made me want to simultaneously punch certain people while vomiting including, but not limited to: to total lack of regard for other human beings, dishonesty to a company who does a great service to those who are genuinely disabled, and/or distaste at how tacky and low is such a practice.  I want to scream at the top of my lungs as a parent of a special-needs child at how  outrageous and selfish and nasty and every other dirty vile word I can think of, I find this scheme.

Handy-Service for the Handicapped and Disabled at Disney:

Lou Lou (far left) and I (middle) and friends on a trip to Disney World in 2005.
  When I was in my early twenties, a group of friends and coworkers got together to arrange an affordable roadtrip to Disney World.  It was a great group of people I felt safe to travel with and the resulting trip is a memory to last a lifetime.  The group was comprised of mostly girls between the ages of 17 and 22.  We were all fun-loving, responsible girls.  Some of the girls on the trip were new to my best friend Lou Lou and I.  Some of us worked together and had become fast friends.  A few of us I had known by growing up because we grew up in the same small community.  It was my first time ever to go to Disney World, and 22 or not, it was still magical to me.  Except for the ugly moment, that is.

Lou Lou in Panama City Beach, Florida
My  best friend Lou Lou was 21 at the time we embarked on our trip.   For as long as I have known Lou (which is a very long time, mind you), she had always been "that girl."  Insecure females were uncomfortable around her.  Some people just didn't know how to take her.  She's a mish-mash of the deep south and the city and the bayou and the coast and something altogether indescribable.  She's funny, smart, and she has always stood out in the crowd.  She is young, gorgeous, and draws attention just because she exudes a light.  Guys gravitate towards her.  Girls tend to be afraid of her.  I just love her to pieces.  I know my Lou Lou in and out. She has a strong, tough as nails exterior, but inside, she's got emotions like everyone else.

Lou Lou in a rented wheelchair at Bellingrath Gardens in Alabama.
This beautiful girl is a bit of a miracle, you see.  A few years prior to our Disney World trip, Lou Lou had been in a terrible car accident.  She was lucky to have survived it; some involved had not. 

She did not, however, emerge from this tragedy unscathed.

The damage she sustained in the accident, including serious debilitating pelvic damage, did not properly heal.  Long-term standing, walking, or difficult terrain are problematic for her--so much so, that she was granted a Handicapped Parking Tag at the request of her physical therapist.  For several years after the accident, my Lou Lou relied on a cane to assist with standing and long walking trips.  

We knew it would be difficult for her to enjoy the heavily packed agenda that Disney so much demands.  With no prior knowledge of the consequences, we decided to rent a wheelchair at the park to help her keep up with the demands of Disney. 

It wasn't the first time that we had done this.  On several occasions, like long outings, shopping excursions, or on trips with strenuous terrain or which were standing/walking heavy, we had rented or used a wheelchair for her comfort.  And while it was a general blessing afforded to us to have a wheelchair available at all for renting, it wasn't without it's own inherent downsides. 
 I learned a lot about how judgmental people could be when they would perceive a beautiful blonde-haired model bodied female park in handicapped parking and opt to use a wheelchair.   No doubt, few took the time to see the handicapped status on her tag and most attributed her handicapped tag to be "someone else's, for that girl doesn't look handicapped at all."

With a parent with Fibromyalgia and a friend with Lupus, I often wondered to myself why would anyone think handicapped had to look a certain way? Why on earth do people need constantly to prove themselves? 

When we went to Disney World, with the intention of renting a wheelchair, it was to supplement Lou Lou's cane and to minimize the pain she would be in.  We wanted to have a good time and we wanted her to have a good time.  Simple as that.  We rented the wheelchair and showed the staff  her Mirror tag to show that she was, indeed, deemed handicapped and that we were not just borrowing a wheelchair willy-nilly.  We expected that they would be saved only for those deemed in need.  We made sure to cross our T's to get Lou Lou a wheelchair because Lou Lou was very much in need.

Lou Lou and friends at Disney World.
We were excited that she qualified to rent a wheelchair and happy that we could make the most of the trip without causing Lou any excessive distress.  It gave us peace of mind and freedom to enjoy ourselves.

  The lady in the park welcome center gave us a pass and said that we could use it if we needed to to be able to bypass areas where the wheelchair would not fit.  We weren't sure what that meant; we were sure, however, that we were ready to get this party started!   As a group,  we picked our first conquest.  I couldn't tell you to this day what ride it was, but I can tell you that we were very surprised to have been ushered out of the line to a "suitable handicapped entrance."  At first, we thought that they were going to take Lou Lou and place her somewhere by herself until we arrived at the front and were disappointed at losing her companionship.  Then when we were taken as a group, we were worried that it would put us further at the back of the line.  We all looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.  We didn't know what this meant. 

Lou Lou (choosing to walk) and I posing with Goofy.
 We just knew that we were going to find out whether or not the wheelchair would lean more towards an inconvenience or a life-saver in terms of how wheelchairs roll in Disney (pun intended, haha).  Turns out, the latter was the case.  Throughout the trip, we found ourselves swept to different entrances and accorded great courtesy.  Even more special, is that in most cases we didn't have to  break apart the group.  Our didn't have to be isolated in her wait and we got to make our memories together.  

It was, at no point, our intention to take advantage of such a remarkable kindness.

At the beginning of the trip and in early mornings when Lou Lou's hip was less bothersome, she stood in many of the less treacherous Fast Pass lines.  During these walks and waits, she would rely on a walking cane. At several points in the trip, she also opted to walk for short periods because her hip, in any position can become bothersome.  In the chair, it would sometimes become stiff.  At other times, especially at the end of the very long days and even worse towards the end of the trip, Lou Lou relied more heavily on the wheelchair than walking.  I have got to say, when we realized the true power of this pass, sure we were excited.  Who wouldn't  be?  But we were mindful at what (and whose) expense these comforts were coming, and when things weren't at their worst, we did not use the pass. 

But when we did, it was a blessing we could not ever be more grateful to have had.

On a day in the middle of the trip, during the latter part of a very hot day, I remember us choosing to go on a ride that separated us as a group.  Lou Lou was exhausted; by this time, the trip was wearing more heavily on her body and the pain becoming unrelenting.   Especially towards the end of the day, this was a wheelchair heavy day.  On this one ride, we waited, Lou Lou  in the wheelchair until about three quarters of the way to the top.  At that point, several stairs appeared, and some Disney agents wheeled her to the top to wait for her us to join her.  She was waiting patiently, being goofy, twiddling her cane or some other non-sense and she'd drawn the attention of others and we were giggling.  We were waiting patiently in line ourselves, about twenty people in front of us when it--the ugliest moment--occurred.  A woman, maybe mid thirties and her ten or so year old daughter were waiting in front of us.  I started to hear words like "fraud," and "faking it," and my ears pricked immediately when I saw the direction of the woman's eyes in regards to the conversation she was having with that child.  She pointed to my Lou Lou and though I cannot remember the words directly, said to her young, impressionable child something to the effect of "...that girl, there.  Ain't no  way she's handicapped.  She's just faking it so she can cut." 

I was stunned. 

How dare she?

Even worse, how dare she teach a child to think that way?

In the most magical place on earth no less??

This wretched being had NO IDEA how much my my Lou would give to not be in pain all the time!  She had no idea what trauma had gone through that left Lou Lou reliant on a cane for short walks and a wheelchair for long outings.  She wasn't there like I was to see her broken body in a hospital bed, to be afraid like I was to see my beautiful friend, ever so filled with pluck and hell, broken and quiet in a sterile, quiet hospital room.  To know her anguish and the journey ahead for her.  Not like Lou Lou would intimately know and not like I had personally witnessed.

I couldn't hold my tongue. 

I was shaking.

I was almost in tears at the shock and the personal affront.

I let her have it.

I let her have it in the most "how-dare-you, ever, in-the-name-of-God, ever-judge-another human-being-so-cruelly, and-teach-a-child-such-rhetoric-and-live-with-yourself/reduce-her-wicked-black-heart-to-the-size-of-a-pea" lecture.  In the end, I don't even think it really sunk in with her, save for seventy five seconds of embarrassment to be called out written blankly in her eyes and her slightly red cheeks.  It stung me; it was an eye-opener. Call me naive, but I honestly thought that people would never do things like that;  that people would never fake being handicapped for just the reasons she thought, so she shouldn't have any reason to judge.

But then today, I learn about this and realize just how sick and twisted and black-hearted some people really are.


Our son E. with his oversized sunglasses.

Fast-forward almost nine years.  Lou Lou and I are now both married with children.  My husband and I are now in the early stages of planning for a trip to Disney World.   When I found out I was pregnant, I swore my son would live a life of experience and learning.  I grew up very, very poor.  Things like the zoo, the aquarium, museums were things I was only lucky enough to see on field trips, IF we could afford the field trip at all, which most years we couldn't.  Disney was most definitely out of our reach when I was a child, hence being 22 and seeing Disney for the first time.  We swore as a parental goal that our son would be able to see the magic of Disney while he was still young and innocent.  Piggledy and I had made many plans for our son while we were expecting and Disney was by far, one of our favorites and would be our biggest vacation accomplishment and gift to our beautiful child.

At age two and a half, our son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

And our plans suddenly took a nosedive.

At first, we didn't know if our son would even talk.  But with the blessing of a fantastic Autism program and intensive intervention at home, our son is now an almost five year old boy with immense knowledge, a huge vocabulary, and a great interest in all things Disney.    While on the outside, he seems unaffected, inwardly, he still struggles with many unseen challenges.  He has the sensory processing deficiencies common to autism.  Loud noises, bright sunny days, busy atmospheres, and long walks are difficult for him.  We can handle the noise--earmuffs!  We can handle the sunshine--umbrellas and sunglasses!  We can handle the busy atmosphere by choosing the least busiest times to go.  But the walking?  It's a part of the Disney experience.  It's a BIG place!  As we very studiously plan a trip (to be as accommodating to our son's special needs as possible) an entire year in advance, we look at stories like these and we think about those who stand to lose those accommodations that make Disney's magic accessible to so many children and families.  I think of my beautiful Lou Lou, who if she ever returns to Disney with her own daughter, who will again be needing a wheelchair;  I think of my son who is too big now to carry for seven days straight and who will need a stroller or wheelchair to accommodate his needs.  And I think of the others who all desire to visit the "happiest place on earth," regardless of the challenges they, too, must face.

And then I think:  shame on you, you disgusting folks who have taken advantage of individuals with disabilities and shame on you for risking an accommodation you don't deserve one bit and shame on the tour company for shamelessly promoting this. 

Shame on you for making it so much harder on folks who bear crosses you may never understand.

Shame on you for making those who make accommodations available feel "unfair" and shame on you for making those who need those accommodations feel "unfair" for needing.

I wonder if there are records of these Manhattan Moms to ban these adults from the park for good?

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