Disney and Autism Speaks: When Criticizing Corporations Is Necessary

Brenda Rothman


In my recent post about my autistic son not being accommodated at Disney World, some people responded with a vehement defense of Disney. It’s almost as if they themselves felt attacked. The same thing happened in the comments of Lydia Brown’s post about Autism Speaks.

Neither Disney nor Autism Speaks will suffer from our criticisms. People will still visit and enjoy Disney. People will still donate, work for, and receive services from Autism Speaks. But those corporations, their goals, employees, and supporters can harm others.

The readers who respond defensively aren’t really defending the corporations. Maybe they’re defending the kind employees they’ve met, like the Disney cast member who went out of her way to help their child, to make him happier, more comfortable, make their experience easier. Or the Autism Speaks parent volunteer who has an adorable autistic child, who loves her child more than life, who only wants to help her child, who listens to you, feels the same way you do, and is funny to boot.

Maybe they’re defending the idea of the corporation, that there is a place like Disney that they can take their autistic child purely for fun, without therapy, without IEPs, and watch him laugh and have fun, like any other child. Or that, of all the places and people in the world who have never even heard of autism (it happens), or don’t know what it means, or think it’s merely a misbehaving kid and a bad parent, there is Autism Speaks, who demands public attention to autism, who gets action, who makes parents feel less helpless and less alone.

Or maybe they’re defending their experience. That they went to Disney and had a great time, did not meet with discrimination, received the accommodations they needed. That they looked to Autism Speaks and received services, insurance, aid, or support from them.

But kind employees and supporters, idealistic goals, and individual good experiences do not negate the problems with those corporations. Disney can have kind employees who get it, provide your child with a magical experience, and still have disability discrimination and accommodation problems. As it did with hearing impaired persons in 1997. As it does with visually impaired persons in 2012. And Autism Speaks can have kind employees and volunteers who get it, provide your child with aid, and still lack meaningful representation, participation, and goals of, by, and for autistic individuals.

That these two sides can exist at the same time is not impossible. We are capable of thinking in shades of grey. We can hold two disparate thoughts in our heads to understand that an organization can start with good intentions and make poor choices. That an organization can have power and also abuse that power. That an organization can be meant for the benefit of certain people and also use strategies and messages that demean those same people. That while your family receives some benefit from an organization, other people are hurt by it.

And when that is true, that an organization is hurting people, we should be open enough to agree that the organization is due criticism and should change in response.

Our criticisms don’t mean that Disney or Autism Speaks, or other corporations, will stop providing services to you. Or to families like yours. But that shouldn’t be our concern. In a community like ours, we should stand up for those whose needs aren’t met. We should demand that all members be treated equally and given equal voice. We should understand that others can and do have experiences different, and equally valid, from ours.

In a community like ours, I hope we stand up to the powerful for those with less power. I hope we understand that when a harm happens to the least of us, it happens to all of us.


A version of this essay was previously published at mamabegood.blogspot.com.