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Access for All? It’s a never ending story,

April 18, 2011

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to Orlando in the American state of Florida for a major assistive technology conference. The conference was a success despite the hotel catching fire and a tornado touching down in town whilst I was there: never a dull moment in the world of access technology! But access to technology conferences are not what take most people to Orlando. Most visitors travel to visit some of the world’s best theme parks and I was no exception. I visited Disney’s Magic Kingdom and left impressed with how Disney has risen to the challenge of turning a 47 square mile attraction, into a visit that anyone will remember, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by key personnel working on access issues at Disney. Before taking me on a tour of the park, they gave me some of the history to Disney’s commitment to making a visit magical for any visitor. Early photos of the park show Walt Disney himself greeting children in wheelchairs as they take a tour. This established a culture of accessibility from the early days of the internationally acclaimed theme park.

The area where Disney is excelling today are:

1. Accessible Rides

Most people visit Disney World to go on the rides. They are a huge part of the experience and without them visitors might feel that they had missed out in major way. Across almost all rides, great care was taken to think about how users with disabilities would board, be seated and leave the ride. Special pods had been design on many rides which allowed wheelchairs to enter the ride directly without the need to transfer to different seating. If a transfer was needed, the employees or “cast” as Disney likes to call them, could halt the ride to allow extra time. In more recent times this had changed, by creating an additional loop on rides where pods for disabled guests could be withdrawn from the ride without the need to stop the ride, rejoining the ride as the gap in the succession of pods came around again. It was a great feature which allowed guests with a disability to take all the time they needed boarding, without disrupting the experience of others and without feeling that they were being “judged” by other guests as they got on board.

Space Mountain is one of many accessible rides at Disney World

2. Training

Even with the design of pods for users, there was still a need to help people with a disability to feel confident that they could easily board and disembark without a problem. Disney had invested in a ride where people with disabilities could practice getting on and off the ride, increasing their confidence when they got to the front of the queues for real.

3. Accessible Transport

Disney World is big. There are multiple parks spread across 47 square miles, and getting from one park to another requires a huge complex public transport system which includes buses, trams, and a widely used monorail. It would have been easy for Disney to have adopted an “equal but different” approach where special transport was available separately for people with a disability, but such approaches always struggle with availability (have you ever tried to get an accessible taxi in Doha?) So instead, the public transport system at Disney World was designed to allow people with disabilities to use the same modes of transport as everyone else. Buses had low loading access, monorails had space for wheelchairs and these carriages were clearly marked so that you could find them easily. The result was that people with a disability were as mobile between parks as they were within them. And with sidewalks with multiple curb cuts, it was easy for chairs (and baby carriages) to get around the attractions.

A Braille Map at Disney Land

4. Accessible Information

Once you were in the park, it was easy to get lost – did I mention that Disney was big? A key point around Disney World was there were usefully situated maps of the park you were in. Such maps were useful to any guest, especially in the rain when your free paper copy turns into pulp very quickly. The maps were carefully designed to include key labels available in both Braille and with universally understood symbols and icons. Good designs for people with a disability helped everyone, from those standing with a sodden map, to those with limited use of English who could easily understand the icons and symbols more than words.

5. Assistive Technology

Technology is at the heart of the Disney experience, not only in the future themed Epcot Center, but as an integral part of every ride you visit. From the cute animatronics of “It’s a Small World” to the smells, sounds and images of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” technology makes these experiences more vivid and memorable.

So perhaps it is no surprise that this experience has been brought to bear on maximising the experience for people with a disability. Upon arrival at the park, a disabled guest can request a personal PDA to carry around with them. The PDA will provide the user with captions or audio descriptions for shows and rides they visit. The descriptions explain to a blind user what the sighted person can see around them, integrating with the music, smells and effects on the ride. The captions synchronise with a show to give instructions or storyline for a deaf person. It’s a great, non intrusive experience that makes rides truly accessible.

But the devices go even further than this. They also help a disabled person to locate themselves in the park by a combination of GPS, RFID, Infrared and Bluetooth technologies that trigger messages as you wander through the park. The messages explain where you are, what is around you and what routes you should take to get to other great rides. As a non disabled person I wanted one of these as well, and it was great to hear that Disney are exploring how to make this information available via a mobile phone rather than needing a specialised device.

However, maybe the most impressive part of all of this, was not the technology, the investment or the commitment, it was that every cast member I met knew about it and knew how to make it all work. Need to know how to get on a ride in a wheelchair? Just ask! Need to know about tactile maps and accessible transport? Just Ask! Need to know where to get a loaned wheelchair or way finder? Just Ask! Now that is impressive, and it demonstrates a real understanding at Disney that providing solutions is not enough if no one helps people to use them.

A Never Ending Story?

Despite all these great features at their flagship theme park in Orlando, Disney isn’t perfect. it knows that they have work to do on making web information accessible to all, to making booking systems easier to use for the blind and for people who use keyboard control only, but to their credit they don’t brush these issues under the mat, they seem to have a plan, the commitment and the investment to address them. They know that as Disney changes and evolves, so do the ways in which access for all needs is to be delivered.

So what can we learn from Disney? What I took away is that creating a truly accessible environment is a long term plan, and one which needs constant renewal as technology changes and the opportunities for access and aspirations of disabled people grow. It has taken 11 years of commitment for Disney to get where it is today, and that journey isn’t over yet. 11 years? That’s an interesting figure for us in Qatar as we lie 11 years away from 2022, when Qatar is set to host the FIFA World Cup. Is it just possible that as the country responds to the challenges of the delivering an amazing World Cup in 2022, that we might also develop a plan and an infrastructure that means that any disabled person in Qatar, citizen, resident or guest will look back and remember the magic as well? I think we can, but that journey needs to start today because 11 years is no time at all. Thanks Mickey for reminding us what is possible!

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