The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects disabled individuals from discrimination not only in employment but also in places of public accommodation, such as amusement parks. Like the ADA, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits amusement parks from utilizing eligibility criteria that prevent people with disabilities from participating in the “full and equal enjoyment” of the goods and services of the amusement park, unless the criteria is necessary for the provision of the goods and services offered. This is known as the “improper criteria” theory. Thus, if such criteria, which operates to exclude a disabled individual cannot be shown to be necessary for the provision of the accommodation being offered, then it is prohibited.
Applying this theory in a recent decision, a federal judge found that Six Flags Great Adventure (“Six Flags”), a theme park located in New Jersey, may impose legitimate safety requirements, such as rider requirements, provided these requirements are based upon actual risks and not on speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities. In that case, a complaint was filed, in 2012, on behalf of a twelve-year-old boy who was denied access to all of the rides at Six Flag except two of them based upon Six Flag’s newly adopted ridership requirements. According to the complaint, the plaintiff did not possess a fully formed and functioning arm and leg and, therefore, did not qualify for most of the rides at Six Flags under the new ridership requirements.
The court found that some the ridership requirements passed judicial scrutiny as they were specific to the ride and mandated by the manufacturer of the ride. However, the court found that many of the Six Flag rides had ridership requirements that failed to meet Six Flag’s burden in arguing a safety concern defense for why those requirements were necessary for the ride. Thus, the court denied Six Flag’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s ADA claim. The Court ultimately concluded that such an assessment of the ridership requirements was essential to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on prejudice, stereotypes, or unfounded fear, while giving appropriate weight to legitimate concerns, such as the need to avoid exposing others to significant health and safety risks.
As might be expected, this case has sparked an enormous debate. Some commentators believe the case could go a long way in paving the way to make public areas more accessible to the disabled and applaud the court’s protective stance of the disabled. Others take umbrage with an amusement park not being given more flexibility in determining ridership restrictions, focus on the cost to amusement parks, and decry the court expanding the ADA to protect a disabled person’s wants as opposed to their needs.
Interestingly, in recent years several amusement parks, such as Calif Adventures and Morgan’s Wonderland have become more accessible to or have been designed exclusively for individuals with disabilities. What’s more, the possible expansion of these types of amusement parks may also create employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
The purpose of this blog is for educational purposes. It is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. You may wish to contact Hyderally & Associates, P.C., if you require further information.