A Lesson in Belonging and Accessibility from Disney World

For many of us in technology and digital communications roles, accessibility is often thought in terms of a checklist or quality assurance. Does this design comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act? Did I follow the WCAG 2.0 guidelines?

When we think of accessibility as only a checklist, we are designing and building products that frame people as an afterthought, a barrier to overcome in the design.

But what happens when we think about accessibility in terms of belonging? What happens when we prioritize creating a sense of belonging with each and every user, instead of mandatory components?

Two adults and a child pose in front of Cinderella’s castle in Disney World
(Aren’t we cute? Too bad our selfie skills were so bad that we couldn’t get the whole castle in the background.)

It is not hyperbolic to say my love for Disney World is infinite.

From the first moment I see Cinderella’s Castle to the ride on the Magical Express back to Orlando International Airport, I feel like I’m home. More importantly, I feel like I belong.

I know, I know — Disney World is a place. “You work in technology, Sam, those are completely different things.”

I beg to differ. In my user experience writing (be it microcopy in applications to paragraphs worth of website copy) or my digital design work, at the core of all we design and develop is the user’s experience.

Back to Disney World.

Creating an experience that is accessible to all and fosters a true sense of belonging does not need grandiose announcements or elaborate displays. No, it is often the most simplistic and personable touches.

One of my favourite hidden gems is the Service Dog Relief Areas. In each park, there are little areas designed for service dogs to relieve themselves (you still need to clean up after them — no Cast Members on doggie duty).

Having never needed a service animal myself, I would have never thought about relief areas. Disney went a step further, allowing service animals on certain rides, and providing portable kennels at rides where they are not allowed; if there are no ways to accommodate the service animal, Rider Switch can be used.

Speaking of Rider Switch, talk about creating an experience that centers on belonging not alienation. If there is one person in your party who doesn’t meet the ride’s requirements (height) or won’t have a good time (too scary), you can use Rider Switch. This allows one person to stay back with the other member(s) of the party not riding, and then can hop the line (via a Fastpass) once the other(s) return.

Most people find a Cast Member to set up Rider Switch at the beginning of the ride but let’s say your “big kid” decides they’re finally ready to go on Tower of Terror. You get through the line and you’re looking at the elevator doors, the final steps before you get on the ride. Panic sets in and there’s no way your kid is going on the ride.

Rider Switch to the rescue. Instead of shaming the kid into going on the ride, you prioritize their feelings (while still getting to experience the ride once the others in your party return).

Even the most common accessibility elements are expanded to create a sense of belonging. If you have a mobility device and are using the Disney transportation system, your whole party loads on together. Certain rides are designed for mobility aids to be used during the ride. There are hearing and visual aids. Some rides and experiences even have low-sensory versions available, with new innovations to favourite rides coming every day.

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” — Walt Disney

The real champions of belonging, however, are the Cast Members. From servers to fully clothed characters, these are the people behind the magic.

Characters (either in full suits or dressed to resemble a human character) are taught how to approach and interact with consent-based principles.

Morgan, my 10 month old, loves anything that’s fluffy but was hesitant when they met characters in full suits — Winnie the Pooh included. Winnie came around twice to interact with Morgan during our meal at the Crystal Palace. Each time, they mirrored Morgan, letting a 10 month old lead the interaction. At no point was touching forced, and they gave my tiny human agency. By the end of the second interaction, Winnie was sitting next to us and getting kisses from Morgan.

Respecting agency and affirming identity are such core components of belonging. Cast Members not only do this in utilizing consent but in their gender-affirming actions, such as:

Using a gender neutral language and deferring to the child, adult or guardian for gender-reaffirming language:

  • “Happy birthday, Princess” to a child in a princess outfit no matter their perceived gender

Helping individuals find costume or apparel with no stereotypical commentary:

  • “Let’s see if this fits!”

Compliments that centre on non-gendered indicators:

  • “My! Look how alert and aware you are! There’s a lot to see and do here, isn’t there?”

This photographer could have just taken a photo of the child, but instead the photographer took the child by the arm so that they could share their dancing with the whole marching band and a group of cheering on-lookers. A simple action by a person who understood how to make this child feel like they belonged.

Magical.

We need to start designing and developing products with the sole KPI is a sense of belonging.

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” — Roy E. Disney

Accessibility standards evolve, new innovations change how we build products. But, when belonging is at the core of all we create, accessibility becomes seamless, inherent.

Simply, when experiences are designed to create a sense of belonging in every interaction, only then are they truly accessible.

“Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” — Walt Disney

She/her. Community builder. Diversity, Inclusion & Equity advocate in #ONTed & #STEM. #WomenInTech. Spoken Word Artist. Design Thinker. #KWAwesome.