Six Flags Great Adventure has an interesting issue on its plate. Currently before the U.S. District court in Trenton, New Jersey is a case about a 16-year-old with a disability who was recently barred from riding nearly every single attraction in the park due to a recent Six Flags policy change.
Joseph Masci’s right arm ends at the elbow, his left arm ends in a malformed hand and was born without feet. He has a prosthetic on each foot, allowing him to not only run, but play soccer and football with his friends as well. His left hand can grip just about anything and has just as much dexterity as a fully-formed hand.
Up until this season, Joseph was allowed to ride any roller coaster, log flume or carousel horse he wanted to while visiting Great Adventure. However, as of this year, Six Flags has changed their policy for guests with disabilities going on attractions. This comes as a reaction to an incident at Darien Lake (which is now owned by Cedar Fair) in 2011. James Hackemer, a 29-year-old military veteran who lost both of his legs to a car bomb exploding while he was on duty in Iraq, was thrown from a roller coaster to his death. Hackemer was riding Man of Steel when he slipped out of his restraint while the coaster train was traveling at 70 mph and fell 150 feet to his death.
After this incident, and reaching a seven figure settlement with Hackemer’s family, roller coaster manufacturers have amended their safety regulations and thus the individual operators like Cedar Fair and Six Flags must abide by these new rules, which are bound by law. Among the new regulations that Six Flags put into place is the following: “A person without one or both feet should be permitted to ride provided they have two functional hands, the bulletin said. And anyone with a single functional hand should ride as long as they have two functional legs.”
As a result of the new regulations, Joseph can no longer experience nearly every single ride at Six Flags Great Adventure. The Ferris wheel and the skyway are the only two rides he can partake in, whereas before he had the ability to ride everything. Needless to say, Joseph’s family is suing Six Flags, saying these new policies violate the American Disabilities Act. Even more interesting? Joseph’s solution is to evaluate all handicapped people individually to see what rides they can be capable of riding as opposed to lumping all disabilities together.
I need to pause here to take a moment to say that Joseph is an exceptional guy. Considering the challenges he has faced his entire life, to be able to run and play sports and actually make the best of the disability is incredible. His family is extremely supportive and they seem to be reasonable people, which is why I am totally lost on why they are trying to get Six Flags (and eventually/possibly all theme parks) to put this policy in place. It makes no sense.
Sure, Joseph was able to ride roller coasters in the past, but unfortunately there was an incident where someone died and now regulations needed to be tightened. At one point, cars were sold without seat belts, cigarettes were considered medicinal and asbestos was a great way to insulate a home. Times change, we learn from our mistakes and unfortunately, sometimes we go overboard on safety regulations to keep people alive.
Try to describe what it’s like to go on a roller coaster. Sure you can tell people about how fast it goes, the wind rushing through your hair or even how many times it goes upside down. However, to experience the true sensation, you just have to do it. Likewise, there is no true test to truly tell if someone who has missing, prosthetic or malformed limbs will be able to ride a roller coaster safely or not. Lap bar restraints are different than over the shoulder harnesses and then there are just seat belts. All have different strains on the body depending on how tall, fast and intense each ride is.
Now I don’t know you, the reader of this article, personally. However, let’s say that you are all for this individual testing of people who have a handicap, even if they do come up with some sort of “fool proof test”. Would you want the job of testing people various forms of disabilities to determine which rides are safe for them? And what is the cut off point? How much strength, agility and flexibility to they need to be able to ride each attraction safely. Also, keep in mind, handicaps change – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Therefore, these tests should be performed every time someone with a disability visits a theme park, assuming they want to ride roller coasters.
Bear in mind that Joseph is barred from riding just about anything in the park where they feel he could slide out of the seat. The reason why someone with a disability like Joseph’s can’t ride even the carousel is even though it’s a gentle ride, if he falls from a horse, and potentially get caught between the ride platform and the ground it could kill him. Those rides have some powerful motors to drive that many horses loaded with guests around and under the right circumstances could cause some serious injury. Possibly even death.
Finally, let’s assume that this test that’s devised for guest with disabilities is put into place. Joseph is given the green light to ride whatever he wants and so do a dozen other people with a similar disability. However, for some reason, something happens where there is another incident like the one at Darien Lake because the person administering the test wasn’t paying enough attention, the person with the disability wasn’t checked out the day of their visit (they were given a pass six months ago) and they were having a particularly bad day and couldn’t hold on. Forget about the seven figure settlement that, no doubt, the theme park would have to pay. Think about everyone who is now responsible for yet another death that could have been prevented: the employee who administered the test, the greeter, the operator checking lap bars, the person who dispatched the ride vehicle, the manufacturer of the ride, and even the theme park itself.
As a theme park enthusiast and a roller coaster fan myself, I am truly sorry that Joseph and others with a similar condition won’t be able to enjoy these attractions anymore. However, considering the circumstances, can you really blame Six Flags for trying to prevent bad press, an expensive lawsuit and another death? To me, the choice to err on the side of caution and enforce tougher restrictions seems like the right thing to do. Even if it does upset some people in the process, it’s better than the potential alternative. Your thoughts?