Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Disability Theme Park

Today, I heard about the opening of the first theme park “dedicated to people with special needs”, specifically kids with developmental disabilities. Morgan’s Wonderland opened to the public recently in San Antonio, Texas. I must admit, I’m feeling a bit conflicted about it.

A part of me is thinking it’s rather cool. I can see the advantages. Some of them from their website:

  • Limited numbers of people at the park to cater for the issues some people with developmental disabilities have in large crowds.
  • Full accessibility of rides.
  • Affordable cost – free to people with "special needs", $5 for caregivers.

The majority of people are going to think it’s great. "Hey, check it out, people with disabilities have their own space to play in". On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. The idea comes from a good and well meaning place – the father of a girl with a developmental disability.

So, why can’t I shake the feeling of "disability apartheid"? Why can’t I help thinking that this is forming a disability ghetto?

Let’s not forget this concept of "special needs", that really gets under my skin. It’s like the concept of "Special Olympics". It tastes… Rotten, patronising. Give me a pat on the head because I’m doing so well, why don’t you? Everyone’s a winner, aren’t they? This term "special" seems to be in great favour from those taking care of people with developmental disabilities. Yeah, they talk about caregivers, but they take care. Looking from the outside in, it feels very much disempowering.

Yet, I am sure the guy who set it up loves his kid very much, and is convinced that this park is the right thing. Just like the organisers of the Special Olympics know in their heart their event is good. But then, so many disability rights activists know in our hearts it looks like exploitation in so many ways. Not saying Morgan’s Wonderland is exploitation, don’t get me wrong! But what is so wrong about making existing theme parks more friendly? Integration (if well implemented) can only be a win for everyone.

In the end, I have no answer. I don’t know whether this park is a good thing, or if it’s a bad thing. Perhaps like so many other things in life, it’s a bit of both. There’s good, and there’s bad. I’m sure the "kids" will have a grand old time. And that is perhaps the most important aspect. At the same time, I can’t help wondering what is the better way.

7 thoughts on “Disability Theme Park

  1. I can see where you’re coming from. I feel like that a lot when it comes to using the term ‘disability’.

    The thing that really impressed me was the Quiet playground for autistic kids and other kids that need quiet play spaces.

  2. I think the idea behind this is as much about community as it is about accessability.

    Accessability, however, is high on the benefits it offers. Disability is broad – accessability may mean a swing built for a wheel chair, it may mean a quiet corner for those with sensory issues, it may mean climbing/exploring equipment designed for certain disabilities or to cater for sensory needs.

    I don’t think it is taking away from the goals of inclusion – it is simply supplementing that by meeting the needs, in a single location, of all that is diverse about disability – in an environment that is safe and stimulating. It also allows for carers to meet, in a safe supportive and comfortable environment. Maybe a strange example but a little like a playgroup – infants can play anywhere, but playgroups enable all of the same for that ‘community’ at that time. I hate that example but with young ones of my own it makes sense to me.

    I can’t agree with your point on special olympics (although I HATE the term ‘special’). I don’t have anything to do with the special olympics yet, but it would, in my opinion, serve a fantastic opportunity to celebrate individual (and team) achievement. I think for those that are smack in the middle of it (and from speaking to parents of those individuals) it is bloody well awesome.

    Could say plenty more but am taking up more than my fair share of comment space :)

    In a nutshell, I take your point about inclusion and agree with it. However, I find nothing wrong with the broader picture making room for both (and especially as disabilities are not cookie cutter in how they present themselves).

  3. I can see both sides of the argument. Whilst “regular” places could go a long way to being more inclusive, crowds freak me out, and always have, so this would provide something that a “regular” place never could.

    Also never liked noise or people running round (maybe why I hate sport?) so like the Quiet Playground concept that Lisa mentions. Although, as a child, I’d also have wanted there to be no other children there, so I don’t think I’d have been a good candidate!

  4. Thanks all for your comments, much appreciated.

    I do think there is some positive to this venture, yes. Greater accessibility of more locations would be better. As someone just told me: “Why can’t Disney just be more accessible?”. But this looks like it has its benefits as well :)

    @mum, never feel you have to limit what you want to say. This is a good place to have these kinds of discussions. We may not agree, but being able to talk about it is important, and good.

  5. We are very much into the idea of mainstreaming access and so much work has been done in digital media in this area in the last 3 years. Think Windows 7, think iPhone, think Google Voice Search, Adobe Acrobat with built-in text readers as examples of this.

    The big benefit of this special park is that it SHOWS the mainstream parks what they need to do to make it work and how it isn’t that hard. Eventually these things will move across.

    My favourite is the tracking of the kids to the parents. When we take our kids to major attractions we write our mobile number on their arms (they know them anyway) and instruct them to go up to a family if they get lost and ask for help – technology could simplify this.

    On balance, I would much rather have this than not – all access started as a “special need” and often ends up mainstream.

  6. I promised a comment ages ago!

    I think this can be a good idea, but it must not stand alone.

    “Regular” parks must never ever think this replaces their responsibility toward accessibility. They should still have ramps, braille/audio info, signed info, etc. They have the entire world as their potential audience, and the universal access approach benefits us all. I went to Disneyland when I was a little girl. If I came back there as a squinting, hard-of-hearing old lady in a wheelchair, I’d expect the same fun experience! (Or I’d give them what-for!)

    That said, I like the community idea raised by “Mum”. I can imagine it would be nice to go to a place where you as caregiver don’t have to do double-work: you don’t have to cater to the needs of the person you are with as well as compensate for flaws in the facilities. You can relax and focus on your friend, family member, or whoever you are caring for.

    A “regular” park can do things like have time slots set aside for such visitors. I mean, big corporations rent out parks from time to time. Why couldn’t there be days when visitors with certain requirements are given a bit more room, so to speak. Why can’t they simply learn to design for better accessibility?

    The segregation concerns me in that children are where we should evangelize. Kids need to accept how we are – with or without crutches, wheelchairs, service dogs, etc. If you “hide” away those with “special needs”, you miss a learning/awareness-raising opportunity for all. There should be room for all of us. After all, theme parks are supposed to be happy places. To me, that excludes exclusion!

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