A Delaware County family’s experience at two central PA theme parks has caught the attention of a lawmaker.
The Mongelluzzo family visited Hershey’s Chocolate World and Hersheypark in December. Layla Mongelluzzo is 2 years old. Because she has autism and hypotonia, she needs to ride in her stroller when she’s out.
The family says that at Chocolate World, they had a doctor’s note and ADA pass for the stroller. And managers told them they would be able to take the stroller into any attraction they wanted (they weren’t going on rides). The attractions are handicap-accessible, as required by the law.
But the family says employees didn’t get that message, and repeatedly told them they couldn’t visit attractions with the stroller, even when they explained why they were using it. At one attraction, Layla put a hairnet on over her hat, instead of her hair, because she has sensory issues, and her family says that also became a point of contention.
Layla’s father says the Hersheypark staff ultimately prevented Layla from entering Santa’s Cottage because of the stroller.
“You know she’s two, she’s going to be dealing with stuff her whole life,” says her father, Ed Mongelluzzo. “But for it to happen by adults, at two years old, she just doesn’t need to go through that.”
He says the issue is much bigger than one about the theme parks. And Senator Bob Casey agrees. Casey recently wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking them to review the Americans with Disabilities Act to see if it needs to be updated, to mandate ADA training for employees.
The Mongelluzzo family started at petition to get the White House to look at the issue of employee training specifically about people with disabilities, “invisible” and not. You can find it at this link.
And Senator Casey’s letter:
Acting Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division
United States Department of Justice
Dear Ms. Samuels,
I write today to bring your attention to a troubling incident in my state which has demonstrated a weakness in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law banning discrimination on the basis of disability. With the Civil Rights Division’s collaboration on this issue, I hope to work together to ensure the ADA continues to protect individuals with disabilities in public accommodations throughout the country.
In December 2013, Edward Mongelluzzo and Elizabeth Finnegan of Pennsylvania took their two daughters to Hershey’s Chocolate World and Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. One of their daughters, Layla, is two years old, has autism, and suffers from hypotonia, which makes her accident-prone. Layla is also hypersensitive to sensory stimulation as a result of her autism. When Layla is away from home, her stroller provides a “safe place” to address her special needs. During the family’s trip to Hershey, park employees denied Layla access to several attractions labeled as ADA-accessible due to her stroller, despite her parents’ explaining her disabilities and producing documentation that included a note from her doctor and a pass obtained from the park.
This experience was understandably upsetting to Layla and her family, and raises troubling questions about the effectiveness of the ADA in preventing discrimination in addition to addressing discrimination that has occurred. As you know, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, and requires reasonable accommodation unless such accommodation would result in an undue burden. However, the current ADA does not require training on ADA compliance, making it difficult to ensure that employees interacting with individuals with disabilities are aware of their obligations. While it is my understanding that Hershey provides such training to its employees, the discrimination Layla encountered suggests that the law could be improved to prevent these types of incidents before they occur, rather than putting individuals and their families in the position of experiencing discrimination before seeking relief.
Given Congress’ intent that the ADA provides protection to all individuals with disabilities, I would welcome a dialogue with your office regarding any provisions of the current ADA that may be better implemented to prevent such situations. In addition, I ask for your technical assistance on this aspect of the law and how it might be strengthened to better prepare ADA-covered entities to provide equality of service to all individuals with disabilities. It is critical that the law protect those with visible disabilities as well as disabilities like Layla’s that are “invisible”.
With the shared goal of protecting individuals with disabilities from unlawful discrimination, I look forward to collaboration between my office and your Department. I appreciate your attention to this important matter.
Robert P. Casey, Jr.
United States Senator
Hersheypark responded to the controversy with a statement from spokesman Garrett Gallia:
Firstly, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts (HE&R) deeply regrets the negative experience Layla and her family had during their visit to Hersheypark on December 15, 2013. During her time at Hersheypark, Layla went to visit Santa’s Cottage, which is in a stroller restricted building due to the size and space of the Cottage. Had we known that the stroller was needed as an accessibility device, we would have, of course, allowed Layla to use her stroller to access the building, as per our policy.
Although we have a long history of welcoming and meeting the needs of guests with disabilities (please see the links to others families’ experiences i.e., “Hershey Park for Families with a Child with Autism”and, “More Fun at Hersheypark for Kids with Special Need”,below, for reference), we certainly recognize there are always ways to improve existing programs that many guests have successfully utilized throughout the years.
To that end, we are conducting a thorough review to identify any areas of improvement that we can make to our accessibility procedures and policies, or our communication of those procedures and policies.
Hersheypark regularly works with local, state and national organizations to ensure that our policies and procedures are consistent with industry best practices. In fact, we partnered with Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania (an organization devoted to parents helping other parents navigate life with a child with special needs) in developing our current ‘Rider Safety & Accessibility Guide’ for Hersheypark (found here – http://www.hersheypark.com/rides/pdf/guestSafety.pdf). In addition, we are committed to educating and training our team members to have an acute awareness of how we can best accommodate everyone, including those with special needs.
We take our responsibility to our guests and employees with special needs very seriously, and we are active in the community so we can best provide for those needs. For example, we were a lead panelist in the 2013 PA Disability Employment Empowerment Summit, and a presenter in the 2013 Living Well with Disabilities Conference. Additionally, we were a founding committee member of Governor Corbett’s Cabinet for Employment of People with Disabilities Business Roundtable.We participate with AHEDD (a private non-profit organization with a mission to serve the community as a catalyst in the employment and development of persons with a disability) in developing community & agency programs for employees with disabilities. In 2013, our company hosted resource and training sessions for HE&R employees and community members on autism and employment of persons with disabilities. Lastly, we contribute to our local Vista School, which has a mission to bring state-of-the-art special education and therapeutic services to children living with autism in Central Pennsylvania.
Given that we place such an emphasis on caring for our employees and guests with special needs, we were disappointed to learn that we didn’t adequately communicate the accessibility procedures that we have in place to Layla’s family. Had we been more successful, we are certain that Layla would have had a wonderful experience while in the Park, as millions of others have had over the years.
Our goal is to ensure that we create wonderful family memories for everyone who visits Hersheypark – and the time, training and policies we’ve put in place have a positive impact on our guests’ experience. We hope to welcome Layla and her family back to Hersheypark in the future to demonstrate that we are able to meet and exceed what they would expect from a Hersheypark experience.