The Segway is a two-wheeled, self-balancing transportation device that allows its riders to remain upright and steer by balancing their body made popular by the television show "Arrested Development."

The machine was first sold in 2002 and is now used by more than 7,000 people. it travels at about 12 mph and costs under $5,000. While the Segway was built as a pollution-free way to zip around sidewalks or offices, it's become popular among people with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and those with spinal cord injuries.

However, when visitors at Walt Disney World tried to use Segways instead of scooters or wheelchairs, the theme park resisted their use.

Disney and Accessibility

The Disney parks have a reputation for being sensitive to and accommodating the needs of all of their visitors. Therefore, the ban on the Segways surprised and angered many. The resort has many services, including a swimming pool, audio devices for the visually impaired and a special hotline for assistance. Those with walking problems can rent wheelchairs or scooters in the park.

Why Aren't Segways Allowed in Disney Parks?

Disney World explained that it doesn't allow Segways into the parks because they aren't approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as medical devices. Disney's Florida location isn't the only place that doesn't allow the use of Segways. They're also prohibited at their California parks - Disneyland and California Adventure. Also, Sea World Orlando doesn't permit them for safety reasons, and San Francisco even outlawed them on its sidewalks last year.

However, Orlando's other major theme park resort, Universal Orlando, doesn't have a policy against Segways.

Why Are Segways Preferred?

Many disabled people prefer Segways for comfort reasons as well as for psychological issues. Jerry Kerr explained that people treat him differently when he addresses them face-to-face from his Segway instead of from a wheelchair. "I don't know how to describe the feeling, when you have resigned yourself to spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair and that whenever you look at someone you're looking at their waist and rear end," Kerr explained that when on a Segway, "then, you're having the ability to stand and interact with someone at their level."1

Accessible Laws and the Disney Lawsuit

Companies such as Disney World are required to make "reasonable modifications" to their policies for people as long as the changes take into account safety issues and don't fundamentally alter the operation of the business.

After Disney barred them from using the Segway at the theme park, two Illinois residents and one from Iowa sued Disney. Disney agreed to acquire at least 15 newly designed stand-up vehicles to settle the case. However, a Florida federal judge recently threw out that settlement agreement as well as the case.

The judge felt the Segway users, who were able to use wheelchairs and scooters, failed to show that under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Segways were "necessary" to access the park. The judge explained that just because the population may prefer to use a Segway because it enables them to stand, "that preference - standing alone - is not essential to accessing Disney's parks."2

The judge did hint that broadening of the ADA might be needed to address new devices available. "The real question, it seems, is the extent to which the ADA can (or should) promote equal treatment and human dignity by requiring acceptance of new technologies."3

 Other Problems

The Segway ban in theme parks is just one difficulty that disabled people must face daily. Not only has the ADA not been updated with technological advances, but even the sidewalks in most cities make life for disabled people more difficult.

Due to crumbling sidewalks, many disabled people have been riding their wheelchairs on the streets, becoming a danger to themselves and car drivers.

Rules in the ADA state that state and local governments can't discriminate against the disabled in providing "services, programs or activities," including access to sidewalks. However, in many cities, people can't enjoy use of the sidewalk and must use the streets.

"Disabled residents here take their lives in their hands getting from point A to point B, says Scott Crawford, a disability-rights advocate."4 In March, James Smith, 68, was killed when an SUV plowed into his motorized wheelchair after being struck by another vehicle.

Many states are facing lawsuits related to disability rights:

  • The state of California was sued by disability-rights advocates requesting thousands of wheelchair ramps installed along 2,500 miles of sidewalks across the state. This would cost the state billions of dollars in sidewalk repairs
  • In Texas, two disabled residents sued the city of Arlington over the conditions of its sidewalks. They were unable to access the sidewalks in their wheelchairs, preventing them from getting around
  • In Montana, the city of Columbia passed a new ordinance making it illegal for motorists to harass disabled people in order to protect "more vulnerable classes" of pedestrians

Whether the Segway could function as an alternative remains to be seen. Nonetheless, transportation for people with limited mobility poses many problems, and not just in theme parks.

Sources
1Associated Press, Disney’s Segway Ban Rankles Some Visitors, MSNBC.com, Feb. 9, 2004, available at http://www.msnbc.com/id/4217573/, accessed Oct. 26, 2009.
2Sophia Pearson and Doris Bloodsworth, Disney Wins Segway Suit Dismissal; Settlement Voided, Oct. 7, 2009, available at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=amP_lbYNZATQ accessed Oct. 26, 2009.
3Id.
4Chris Joyner, Sidewalks Become Battlegrounds, USA Today, Oct. 25, 2009, available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-10-25-sidewalks_N.htm accessed Oct. 26, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What are the options for recognizing changing technologies, such as using a Segway, for people with disabilities when seeking relief under existing laws?
  • Could a disabled person using a device like a Segway be allowed to use it on a conditional basis, for example, if an amusement park required the user to provide insurance coverage?
  • What are the exceptions or defenses to a claim under the ADA for failure to provide access to a disabled person? For example, could a city claim that it doesn't have to comply because it can't afford to make improvements?

Tagged as: Civil Rights, Discrimination, walt disney world, segway saga, discrimination lawyer