Sunday, April 21, 2024

Access and safety: Reassessing how disability is addressed for attractions

By Kathryn Woodcock

As a deaf person, human factors engineer, educator and specialist in themed entertainment, Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, P.Eng., C.C.P.E., I.C.A.E, has key insights to share with the industry. She is a professor at Ryerson University, teaching about accident theory and analysis, safety evaluation techniques, and health and safety systems. At the graduate level, she teaches about themed entertainment technology and design in the Master of Digital Media program. This article is the third of her exclusive, three-part series for InPark, addressing issues of accessibility and inclusion in attraction design. (Click for part 1, “I am not an ‘ADA Guest,” and part 2, “An accessible experience by design.”)

The right to access may not apply when exclusion is required for the individual’s safety or the safety of others.

This is the part that is fraught. While we want everyone to have every opportunity, we cannot change physics, and the effect of physics on body tissues. People with disabilities accept the importance of safety – the request to participate is not a death wish. We want operators to show their work. When I am restricted because ‘safety,’ what exactly is the risk? Be prepared to show the work, and to take reasonable actions to mitigate risks in inclusive ways, rather than by restriction.

In all my disability interactions, I have never heard someone sincerely propose that a dynamic roller coaster be replaced or converted to a slow, flat train ride so that it does not aggravate their physical disability, health condition, or sensitivity. They ask, “I believe that I would enjoy the dynamic ride, so why can I not get into the vehicle? Why are there no restraints offered that would safely contain me? Why can you not develop an evacuation plan that would work for me in the unlikely event the situation arises? Can you give me specifics of the experience so that I can evaluate the likelihood that it will be intolerable, given my lived experience with my specific condition and the medical advice I have received? Where are experiences as exciting and culturally significant as this one, but without the dynamic features I cannot tolerate?”

Most strident demands for access to “everything” arise from unsatisfactory responses to questions like that, the loss of autonomy over the decision about access, and a perception of indifference to the exclusion.

There are many ways to reduce risks that should be considered before moving on to unilateral exclusion of 20% of the population. Some barriers are simply left over from past design conventions, from the era when disabled people were expected to stay home. Many legacy barriers could be avoided in future designs, and some could be eliminated with modifications or adaptations. However, mechanical and structural modifications and adaptations cannot be improvised at the point of service. They require analysis and testing against applicable safety standards and regulations.

Simple operational accommodations could be possible, such as storing prostheses and devices conveniently near the load-unload area while the guest is in the attraction, being willing to interrupt efficient guest flow to enable a slower moving guest to access, and allowing a companion on a single-user experience where a guest needs assistance.

When guests with certain disabilities can safely participate at certain times, on special-event days, or at one venue when restricted at another, the affected guests will logically infer that the restriction is for operational convenience, not safety.

Despite the best of intentions, even with unlimited creative ambition, sometimes there are technical limits. Sometimes, the experience is subjectively intolerable for some guests, but occasionally, for some the attraction entails an unacceptable risk to safety.

But not so fast. “Safety” is not a single property and “disabled” is not a homogenous group. Unless the reason is mere segregation, we need much more clarity and precision about who is affected and the nature of the effect.

Who is affected?

Many ride manuals recommend or require the exclusion of “disabled people,” “people with physical limitations,” or even people described with such weird, vague euphemisms as “people not in possession of their physical or mental faculties.”

“Disabled people” are not a single group. The safety implications of epilepsy, paraplegia, blindness, and autism on experiencing a particular attraction or experience are not the same, and range from no safety concern at all to serious concern. The concern is not with “disabled” guests. It is with any guests, “disabled” or not, who do not have a specific ability needed to safely tolerate the nature of the attraction.

In some cases, that requirement corresponds exactly to a recognized disability type, and affects no one else. However, there is often much diversity within a particular disability group. For example, not all epileptic guests are photosensitive. Rather than unilaterally restricting epileptic guests, many of them needlessly, it is far better to caution guests that they need the ability to tolerate strobe effects (presuming that this is the source of concern) and alert guests how they can access information about the specific characteristics of the attraction before deciding to participate. That caution may also benefit non-epileptic guests who also find strobe effects bothersome.

Freedom Flyer at Fun Spot America. Courtesy John Morris/

Similarly, wheelchairs are an access device, not a disability. People use wheelchairs for a variety of reasons and wheelchair users are not always equally at risk in an experience. In some cases, paraplegia and amputation have similar effects, such as limiting the ability to walk. In other cases they are very different. For instance, paralyzed limbs may still fill out the seated space to enable a restraint device to securely contain the body.

What is the effect?

Whether a guest can be allowed to choose to participate depends on the effect of not having that ability or characteristic. Is it a certain chance of grave injury or just a possibility of discomfort?

The harm of being ejected by ride forces is clear. If a body shape is not safely contained by the restraint devices, it is unacceptably dangerous to participate. We cannot allow a person to gamble against physics or plan to just “hold on tight” as a restraint against ejection forces.

The rationale for unilaterally restricting people for less serious and uncertain effects is murkier. Some hesitation about accepting disabled guests is linked to fear of causing them pain or discomfort. Let’s be honest: a lot of ride experiences have uncomfortable parts for many guests. In most cases, we allow people to decide if the ride is for them. We do this because attraction hosts are not qualified to evaluate guests’ health through visual examination. Yet through negative media coverage, we see disabled people being actively removed from attraction queues, even ride vehicles, with no clear rationale.

Courtesy Universal Orlando Resort.

A common belief that people with Down syndrome would become stressed and therefore at risk of self-extraction in a behaviour meltdown was contradicted by a clinical experiment[1]. Non-disabled guests have self-extracted from attractions to retrieve dropped items, pilfer from the scenery, respond to an urgent need for the restroom, or even make an early exit from attractions they find boring. Restricting guests simply because they appear to be disabled does not eliminate self-extractions.

Questions about suitability of an attraction do not just affect disabled guests. If they did, some may argue that we should divert “disabled” guests to specialized assessment by a medical unit. But requirements to follow spoken directions may be difficult for foreign guests, not just deaf guests. Requirements to self-evacuate may be difficult for physically fatigued guests and guests wearing dressy footwear, not just paraplegic guests. Requirements to see visual information may be difficult for fearful guests who prefer to close their eyes, not just blind guests. Requirements to refrain from impulsive actions may be difficult for a lot of adolescents, not just guests with diagnosed behavior conditions.

Many restrictions seem to anticipate evacuation scenarios. All guests should know that evacuation is a rare possibility, and those wanting to be certain to avoid it can choose to abstain. But people without diagnosed panic disorder may also panic in evacuation situations. Operators simply must have an evacuation plan that can manage panicked guests. Likewise, guests who are deaf, blind, or paraplegic may be unable to follow PA broadcast instructions to self-extract from a vehicle and navigate a catwalk to an evacuation ladder. But so are guests who do not understand the language on the PA, guests who are afraid of heights, guests with sore muscles from yesterday’s yard work, and guests wearing certain clothing or footwear.

“This is a a locked knob for an emergency exit with a placard saying ‘🦽 Ok!’ I have no idea what symbolism to read into that, but I found it entertaining, and soft of affirmative, that they were putting the ‘!’ after the Ok, to really reinforce that wheelchairs were okay.” – Kathryn Woodcock

If participation requirements focus on what is needed to safely experience the attraction, we no longer need to precisely itemize the nuances of every disability and condition. We can focus simply on the requirement and how to apply it. How will operators verify the requirement? The operator should be able to verify that the restraint device can close around the guest’s body and does not leave excess movement space that could enable ejection. Other requirements are clearly, and even persuasively, communicated and self-applied by the guests.

The opportunity to choose does not mean forced participation. It simply avoids the escalation of dissatisfaction from unilateral exclusion. This approach respects guests’ enlightened self-interest when presented with adequate information about what the attraction will ask of them – information that will benefit all guests.

[1] Borgi, M., Cerino, S., Chiari, G., Cirulli, F. (Eds.), 2015. “Una giostra per tutti [A ride for everybody]: amusement park accessibility reccomendations for people with disability”. iv, 89 p. Rapporti ISTISAN 15/11 (in Italian). Rome: Istituto Superiore di Sanità.

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock
Dr. Kathryn Woodcock
Dr. Kathryn Woodcock focuses on amusement rides and attractions, applying her expertise in human factors engineering to the experience of guests, operators, and inspectors. She is also extensively involved in professional training and consulting to designer/ manufacturers and owner/ operators. Dr. Woodcock also contributes to the industry community through TEA, ASTM Committee F24, IAAPA, and AIMS International and others.

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