Valleyfair: An Amusement Park
Not Very Amusing To The Blind

by Curtis Chong

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          For many years blind people have been going to amusement parks. We enjoyed the same rides and attractions as the sighted public. Like them, our hearts quickened with anticipation as we climbed the seemingly endless slope that presaged the swooping flight of the roller coaster, and like everyone else we reveled in the fear and excitement of the ride as it plunged through its many sharp drops, twists, and turns.

          Most amusement parks thought nothing of the fact that some of their guests were blind. No special policies and procedures governing their treatment were in place, and none were asked for by the overwhelming majority of blind visitors.

          In Shakopee, Minnesota, there is an amusement park called ValleyFair. For many years blind people came to the park and enjoyed the rides and attractions there--all with no fuss or bother from anyone. Then, in the late 1980s, ValleyFair decided to make its park accessible to the handicapped. To that end, ValleyFair developed a whole raft of special policies and procedures. Without consulting the supposed beneficiaries of its efforts, the handicapped, ValleyFair put together a set of rules and procedures designed to make the park safe and accessible to them. However, for the blind, these policies and procedures had exactly the opposite effect.

          On July 17, 1989, Janet Lee, who is blind, went to ValleyFair with a friend to celebrate her birthday. Janet is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and serves as vice president of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND, Inc.), the Federation's training center for the adult blind in Minnesota. Because she had been to ValleyFair many times before and had taken many of the rides without any trouble, she expected to have a good time. Alas, it was not to be. ValleyFair's policies regarding the handicapped were now in force.

          Janet's first indication that something was amiss was at the entrance to the park. There she observed prominent signs proclaiming that handicapped persons must report to Guest Relations so that they could be informed about the park's policies concerning specific rides. Assuming that the term "handicapped" applied to someone with a mobility impairment, Janet ignored the signs and entered the park.

          At the gate the attendant told Janet that she had to go to Guest Relations so that she could be told which rides she could and couldn't ride. Janet told the attendant that she had been to the park many times before and that she was perfectly capable of riding any of the rides. The gate attendant insisted that, nevertheless, she should go to Guest Relations. Janet pushed past the attendant and went into the park.

          When Janet tried to board the bumper cars, a ride which she had frequented numerous times before, she was told by the ride operator that, because of her blindness, she could not drive the bumper car. In true Federation style, Janet stuck to her guns, and the operator ultimately permitted her to ride as she had done many times before.

          This incident, which Janet rightfully regarded as blatantly discriminatory, prompted her to do some investigation. She learned that ValleyFair had a policy specifically prohibiting blind people from driving the bumper cars and the antique cars. She promptly filed a charge of discrimination against ValleyFair with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

          Unfortunately the Minnesota Human Rights Department was hoodwinked by the safety argument with which Federationists, in dealing with the airlines, have become all too familiar. ValleyFair maintained that its policies regarding the blind had been developed in consultation with a rehabilitation specialist and a biodynamics engineer and that, for safety reasons, blind people should not be permitted to drive the bumper cars. After all, the park maintained, its policies really weren't designed to discriminate against the blind. Rather, they were in place for reasons of safety. So, although in February, 1990, the Human Rights Department did rule that the prominent signs at the entrance to the park requiring handicapped persons to go to Guest Relations were discriminatory, it found no discrimination in ValleyFair's policy prohibiting the blind from driving the bumper cars.

          In the meantime, unbeknownst to anyone, ValleyFair was developing an even more demeaning and discriminatory policy dealing with the blind. This policy manifested itself in July of 1990.

          On July 22, 1990, Judy Sanders and I took members of our families to ValleyFair to spend the day at the park. In all, the group consisted of Judy Sanders; her sister and her sister's three children (Jason, Jodi, and Joshua); my twelve-year-old daughter Tina; and me. At the park, Judy and I both encountered situations in which park personnel addressed the children who were in our care instead of communicating with us directly. On one occasion Judy Sanders was not permitted to take her cane aboard one of the rides.

          Tina, Jason, and I went off to enjoy some of the more energetic rides. On two separate occasions I was required to sit next to one of the children on the High Roller (a roller coaster). The first time the attendant refused to communicate with me but instead said to the two children, "One of you has to ride with him."

          This prompted me to pay a visit to the Guest Relations booth. There I was told that, because I was blind, I was required to be accompanied by a responsible adult while riding the High Roller. Apparently, twelve-year-old Tina qualified as a responsible adult in this case. As it turned out, the High Roller was not the only ride for which blind guests were required to be accompanied by a responsible adult. I asked for and received a written copy of ValleyFair's ride policy pertaining to the blind. Here is the text of that policy:

          This information is a guide for a person with the following disability: Blind

          A guest with the above disability may be safely accommodated on all rides and attractions not noted with an "X." The guest should be accompanied by a responsible adult on all rides noted with an "*."

NOTE: Applicable height requirements apply.

+* Antique Cars                   
 * Bayern Kurve                   
+* Bumper Cars                    
 * Carousel                       
_X Children's Climbing Castle     
 * Corkscrew                      
 * Enterprise                     
 * Excalibur                      
 * Ferris Wheel                   
 * Flying Trapeze                 
 * Flume                          
___High Dive Show                 
 * High Roller                    
 * Hot Air Balloons               
@* Kiddie Coaster                 
@* Kiddie Train                   
@* Kiddie U-Turn                  
@* Lady Bugs                      
 * Looping Starship               
___Monkey Show                    
 * Monster               
 * Northern Lights       
@* Pinocchio             
___Red Garter            
@* Roadsters             
 * Scrambler             
@* Sea Planes            
_*_Super Cat             
 * Thunder Canyon        
 * Tilt-a-Whirl          
TOT TOWN                 
 * Ball Crawl            
_X Moon Walk             
___Swing Art             
_X Towering              
 * Bike Race             
 * Water Ladder          
@* Rub-a-Dub             
@* Kiddie                
 * Trabant               
 * Trolleys              
 * Wild Rails            

Comments: + Passenger only.

@ The accompanying adult may not ride, should explain the ride to the blind guest and help with loading and unloading.

NOTE: Seeing eye dog refer to introduction section.

          Needless to say, Judy and I both filed charges of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights against ValleyFair. At the same time, through the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, we got busy spreading the word to the media about ValleyFair's demeaning and insulting treatment of the blind. The story was picked up by a number of radio stations, the local wire service, and quite a few newspapers around the state. The following article, reprinted from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is typical of the favorable coverage we received:

Group Says Park is Biased Against Blind

by Les Suzukamo

          ValleyFair amusement park may have been built for kids, but an advocacy group for the blind says its adult members don't have fun there because the park treats them like children.

          The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota announced Monday that nine of its members are filing discrimination complaints with the Minnesota Human Rights Department against the Shakopee amusement park because ValleyFair illegally tried to prevent the blind adults from boarding several rides unless they were accompanied by a sighted adult.

          "Instead of a good time," said Joyce Scanlan, Federation president, "they were harassed, publicly humiliated, insulted, and treated like children." The group went to the fair on September 23. The fair closed for the 1990 season on Sunday.

          The Human Rights Department plans to investigate the complaints once the paperwork is formally filed, enforcement officer Pat Gambill said. The department already is trying to negotiate a settlement with the park over a 1989 complaint in which it believes the park discriminated against a blind woman. The woman, Janet Lee, is one of two blind people who is filing a second complaint against the park, and the park disputes the department's finding.

          ValleyFair marketing director Linnea Stromberg-Wise said the policy against letting blind people ride unaccompanied is a safety consideration and is not intended to discriminate against the blind.

          "I talked to a blind man today who told me he needed someone to tell him what would happen on a ride; he couldn't go upside down because he was on some medication," Stromberg-Wise said Monday.

          She said blind people can board any ride, but the park requires them to be accompanied by a sighted person during busy times to explain what will happen during the ride. During slow periods park personnel can do that themselves, she said.

          "If one is able to see the ride, one naturally is able to see what will happen," she said. "If they can't see the ride, they need someone to explain it to them."

          But Scanlan said that blind people who want a description of the ride can ask for themselves.

          "I just think it's really presumptuous of them to decide they need to tell all blind adults what type of ride they're going on," said Scanlan, who is blind.

          Curtis Chong, Fderation vice president and one of the nine people who is filing a complaint over the September 23 visit, had filed a previous complaint over a visit in July with his 12-year- old daughter, who is sighted.

          The amusement park ride operators made her ride with her father on a roller coaster, even though she wanted to ride with a friend, he said. The operators talked only to her and acted as if he wasn't there, Chong said.

          "I was humiliated," said Chong, who has been blind since birth. He has been a computer systems programmer with IDS for the past 10 years.

          "Here I am, trying to teach my daughter, who's sighted and who's 12, that blind people are capable...and they treat her like she's my caretaker," he said.

          Scanlan said after the Federation heard about Chong's experience, nine members decided to pay another visit to ValleyFair with a public radio reporter "as a test" of their policy. Chong's July visit complaint is under investigation, Gambill said.

          That is what the article said. In response to the charges of discrimination, ValleyFair trotted out the same tired old arguments about safety. Here is an excerpt from the letter prepared by Dorsey & Whitney, attorneys for ValleyFair:

          In regards to Mr. Chong's objection to the fact that he was not allowed to ride the High Roller without another person, ValleyFair firmly denies Mr. Chong's claim that this requirement was discriminatory. In order to ensure the safety of its guests, ValleyFair has compiled an analysis on the characteristics of each ride at the Park as well as the nature of various disabilities.... As indicated on the High Roller criteria list, experts evaluating that ride have advised ValleyFair that a blind individual should not ride the High Roller alone. This recommendation was made based on safety considerations. Given this recommendation, ValleyFair had two options: to not allow blind individuals to use the ride or to require that blind persons be accompanied by another individual. ValleyFair believes the latter alternative to be the more preferable.

          In this charge, Mr. Chong points out that the ValleyFair policy indicates that on certain rides blind guests are to "be accompanied by a responsible adult." ....Apparently, Mr. Chong did not understand how his twelve-year-old daughter qualified. The ValleyFair policy, however, clarifies this issue:

          "For the purpose of our Ride Admission Policy, a responsible adult is defined as someone taller than the post requirement (four feet) who can assist the accompanied person in boarding or deboarding and maintaining his postural control under the dynamic conditions of the ride."

          ....Again, the purpose of ValleyFair's ride policy is evident--ensuring the safety of its patrons. This is not a discriminatory policy....

          There you have a taste of the communication from ValleyFair's high-priced attorneys. It is interesting to note that nowhere in the pile of paperwork prepared by these sober minions of the law could we find a shred of evidence substantiating the claim that the blind, for safety reasons, should not ride the High Roller (or any other ride) alone. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, the blind are presumed to require more safety precautions than the sighted.

          Consider, too, ValleyFair's unique definition of the term "responsible adult." The commonly accepted definition of responsible adults is people with their wits about them who are at least eighteen years or older. Apparently, at ValleyFair, anyone over four feet tall qualifies as a responsible adult. Using this twisted logic, a responsible adult could easily be a ten- or twelve-year-old child; and, since the definition contains no references to sight, a blind child could also qualify.

          With all of this as background, we decided to test ValleyFair's policies dealing with the blind. On Sunday, September 23, Russell Anderson, Ronda Del Boccio, Nadine Jacobson, Steve Jacobson, Scott LaBarre, Janet Lee, Judy Sanders, Heidi Sherman, and I paid a visit to the amusement park. We were accompanied by two sighted friends and Chris Tetlin, a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio.

          We first decided to ride the roller coaster. (ValleyFair calls it a High Roller.) We climbed aboard, and after a short delay the ride began. We later learned that the initial delay had been caused by a ride operator, who found it necessary to phone a supervisor to get permission to let the ride proceed with all those blind people aboard.

          We then proceeded to a roller coaster-like ride called the Corkscrew. Here is where the real trouble began. At the head of the line, we were prevented from boarding the ride. An individual identifying himself as a manager told me that the members of my group could not sit together on the ride. Each one of us, he said, was required to sit next to a responsible adult. I pointed out that every member of the group qualified as a responsible adult by ValleyFair's own policy. The manager responded that the responsible adult had to see. It was clear at this point that park management was not going to let us ride the Corkscrew. We, on the other hand, were determined that we would ride. Six members of our group proceeded to climb aboard the ride, and management promptly closed down the ride.

          It is interesting to note some of the different perspectives Federationists had during the seemingly endless waiting which followed. Truly, it was a test of nerves. Would management, as some predicted, summon the park's security guards and haul the blind people off the ride? How would the public react to having to stand in line while park management and the blind discussed the issue?

          Janet Lee, who occupied one of the cars with Heidi Sherman, tells of how a ValleyFair employee tried to intimidate her by yanking open the car's restraining bar and ordering her to "get out of the car!" When she would not move, the employee went away.

          Steve Jacobson said that this reminded him a lot of a similar situation he experienced while sitting in an exit row aboard a United Airlines flight in Louisville, Kentucky.

          Scott LaBarre said that this was the very first real experience he had ever had with outright discrimination against the blind. "I knew this kind of thing happened to other people," he said, "but this is the first time I have ever experienced it. When you think of it, ValleyFair is really being rather stupid."

          In the ever-lengthening line, members of the public were growing irritated by the long delay. Many of them wanted to know why management simply wouldn't let the blind people ride. Judy Sanders, who had declined to ride the Corkscrew because it simply wasn't her kind of ride, happened to be standing in line; and it was a good thing, too. Judy was able to explain the issue to people who were growing impatient with the long delay. One group started up a chant: "Let 'em go! Let 'em go!"

          After forty minutes park management caved in and agreed to let us--but not until they described the ride to us first. Although most of us had ridden the Corkscrew before, we agreed to listen.

          One of the managers then launched into a description of the ride, making references to steep inclines, chain-linked drives, and "double helixes." All in all, the description was totally incomprehensible.

          Before the ride started up, I heard one park employee ask the manager if the Corkscrew shouldn't be tested first because it had "been down" for quite a while. I distinctly heard the manager say, "Let 'em go."

          In three hours we were able to take in only four rides. Park managers trailed us everywhere we went, and at every ride operators insisted that we could not ride together. On the Ferris Wheel, for example, ride operators inveigled sighted people to ride with us. However, to their credit, most members of the public would have none of it. Finally, management apparently gave in. The park was about to close anyway. They simply authorized each ride operator to let the blind folks ride together.

          Chris Tetlin, the Minnesota Public Radio reporter, had his tape recorder running throughout the entire visit to the park. He interviewed members of the public and park management. The following story was broadcast:

          News Anchor: Eight blind people caused long delays on some rides last night at ValleyFair Amusement park by boarding a number of rides without sighted companions. Protesters are members of the National Federation of the Blind. They say the park's rules are discriminatory. The rules say blind people must be with sighted people on most rides. Chris Tetlin was at the park, and he has this report:

          Chris Tetlin: The group of blind people rode the roller coaster, the ferris wheel, the Carousel, and a roller-coaster- like ride called the Corkscrew. During the group's evening visit to the park a trio of ValleyFair managers followed the group to most rides, and in a couple of cases shut the rides down while they tried to convince the blind to allow sighted people to join them. The manager shut down the Corkscrew for forty minutes after three pairs of blind people climbed into cars and refused to get out. Park managers got a chorus of catcalls from the dozens of people standing in line, and at one point there was a chant, "Let 'em go! Let 'em go!" The ride eventually started with the blind people still aboard. ValleyFair adopted its special rule a couple of years ago with the intent of protecting blind customers. Park Operations Manager Rich Hertzel says the purpose of the rule is to prevent blind people from being frightened or hurt when a ride takes a sudden dip or turn.

          Rich Hertzel: The rationale for the rule is that we want somebody to be able to ride with the visually impaired person to describe the activity of the ride. We normally, as sighted individuals, assimilate a lot of data that we are unconscious of, the way we react. We just want them to have the same benefit.

          Chris Tetlin: But at least some of ValleyFair's blind customers resent the special rule. They say they'll ask for help if they need it. Three of the eight blind people who went to the park last night (Jan Lee, Judy Sanders, and Curtis Chong) have already filed discrimination complaints against ValleyFair with the State Human Rights Department. They have been to the park on numerous occasions, and they're angry that the park requires blind people to go on most rides with "a responsible adult." In practice a responsible adult means a sighted person who is at least four feet tall. The organizer of last night's protest, Curtis Chong, says the rule is demeaning and discriminatory.

          Curtis Chong: We believe they don't need any special policies with respect to the blind, and history will bear us out. We have, as blind people, been going to amusement parks since amusement parks were ever invented with no trouble, no problem. We never asked for any special help and never required any. That's where the evidence is that shows that we can function and do all the things everybody else does in an amusement park, and we want ValleyFair to regard us in that way.

          Chris Tetlin: Demonstrator Judy Sanders says the safety issue is bogus.

          Judy Sanders: One of the things that we discovered a long time ago is that it's the attitude of the public about blindness that is the problem. There is no safety issue here. And while they were sitting on the ride, the public was learning and agreeing with us that it's stereotypic notions that caused the park to have these archaic rules, and the National Federation of the Blind is not going to let them have these rules anymore.

          Chris Tetlin: Protestors were eventually allowed to go on the rides, but they faced such long delays that they got only four rides in three hours. The delays angered some of the park's other customers too. Dan Hall from Northfield was one of a few customers who spoke up to defend the park. Hall had five grandchildren with him, and he was mad about being stuck in line at the Corkscrew.

          Dan Hall: I wish they would change the policy in one respect, but if they've got the policy, it must be for a good reason. I don't know the reasons, but I'm sure they've thought it through. That is what management is for. So right now, I am on ValleyFair's side, and it's too bad, but I hope it can be settled so rides don't have to be shut down every time somebody wants to come up there and protest.

          Chris Tetlin: But most customers who spoke out were angry at ValleyFair. Laura Chesmer and her sister Terese Chesmer of Minneapolis waited in line at the Ferris Wheel while park managers negotiated with several blind people who were trying to take the ride.

          Laura and Terese Chesmer, first voice: I think it's total discrimination. It made me sick to my stomach to see that.

          Second voice: I mean, just because they're blind, does that mean they can't have fun on the ride, and they shouldn't be allowed to go on it? I mean, they are adults. They aren't going to jump off or something. Some guy in line says, "Stop letting them hold the line up! Let 'em protest some other time, and let the normal people..." What do you mean normal? What's normal?

          First voice: Yeah!

          Chris Tetlin: The five protestors who haven't filed discrimination charges against the park say they plan to now. The three complaints already on file are on review by the State Human Rights Department. Officials say they can't comment on the human rights complaints while the investigation is underway. This is Chris Tetlin.

          About a week after the ValleyFair visit, the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota issued a press release announcing that nine blind Minnesotans were filing charges of discrimination against ValleyFair with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Again, we received a lot of favorable coverage, typified by this story from the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Blind Visitors Take Issue With ValleyFair

by Julio Ojeda-Zapata

          A blind man and woman from Minneapolis have filed discrimination complaints with the Minnesota Human Rights Department against ValleyFair, an amusement park in Shakopee.

          Curtis Chong and Judy Sanders visited ValleyFair on July 22 with another blind adult and four sighted children.

          Chong said he was not permitted to ride alone on the park's High Roller, a roller coaster. On two occasions, he said, employees insisted his 12-year-old daughter sit beside him.

          Throughout his visit Chong, 36, said ValleyFair gatekeepers and other employees repeatedly treated him in a condescending manner by addressing all remarks to his daughter instead of to him.

          "There I was, a responsible adult with a job in computers, a father who raised his daughter, and they were assuming that she was responsible for me," Chong said.

          "The implication is that we can't take care of ourselves. The implication is that we, as blind people, must be handed on to other people like pieces of baggage without feelings or competence."

          Sanders also alleges that ValleyFair employees treated her in a condescending manner and that she was not allowed to carry her white cane on some rides.

          Linnea Stromberg-Wise, ValleyFair's director of marketing, would not comment on the incidents.

          "We don't make it a practice or policy to discriminate against any individual or group," Stromberg-Wise said. "ValleyFair's number one concern and interest is safety."

          According to a ValleyFair document, blind people must be accompanied or supervised by a "responsible adult" to board 36 of 45 rides, including the children's carousel, the Kiddie Train and the Kiddie Lifter.

          "We strongly object to any special policies or procedures at ValleyFair dealing with the blind," said Joyce Scanlan, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

          "We neither want nor need anything above or beyond what is provided to the sighted public," Scanlan said. "We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves at ValleyFair, and it is high time that ValleyFair treat us like the responsible adults we are."

          Chong is the Federation's vice president.

          That's what the news media had to say, and it is reasonable to ask where things stand today. The charges of discrimination against ValleyFair have been formally filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. We are taking every opportunity to publicize ValleyFair's deplorable and demeaning treatment of persons who are blind. The tremendous support and understanding that this issue has received from the general public is immensely encouraging. Yes, when blind people go to ValleyFair today, they will be required to be accompanied by a "responsible adult," who will likely be a small child. Yes, if blind people visit ValleyFair today they will not be given the right to ride together. And yes, when blind people visit ValleyFair, they can be assured that park employees will address sighted people who happen to be visiting with them.

          But things will certainly not remain at a standstill. Blind people, through their own organization, the National Federation of the Blind, are waging the struggle for equality. Like it or not, ValleyFair will modernize its thinking toward the blind; and like it or not, ValleyFair will learn to treat blind guests as the first-class citizens and responsible adults they truly are!

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