Discrimination Against Autistic Employee at Amusement Park

By Frank Kineavy


Chris Emery, 29, lost his job of 13 years at Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park.

A young man with autismlost his job of more thana decade after a re-interview process did not take into account candidates with special needs.

Chris Emery, 29, was looking forward to his 13th season as a bathroom attendant at Dorney Park, an amusement park located in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He took great pride in his summer job and harbored sincere enthusiasm for each pin he received for being on the staff. But Emery almost didn’t get a chance to add to his collection after a new interview led managers to deem Emery unfit for the position.

The park told Claudia Emery, Emery’s mother, that her son could go back and interview again in 30 days but she didn’t understand what would change.

“Why humiliate him twice” she questioned. “It wouldn’t have changed. It would have been the same thing. Chris is Chris.”

The interview aims to make candidates think on their feet by using Lego blocks to show how effective they could be working in groups. The park claims this process helps “identify candidates who have the enthusiasm, engagement and problem-solving skills to give our guests the level of service they expect.”

But Claudia Emery said this interview process was not designed for people like her son. “The whole interview was not set up for special-needs people, that’s what it boils down to,” she said.

Advocates for people with disabilities also felt the process was discriminative. One of those advocates is Karen Shoemaker, executive director ofThe Arc of Lehigh and Northampton Counties(a group that supports people with intellectual and development disabilities and their families).

“I think employers who make a change to interviewing processes for employees don’t always understand the unintended consequences that this could have for someone with a disability,” Shoemaker said. “You need to make sure you’re able to fully assess the asset that a person with a disability can bring to your place of employment.”

According to the National Autistic Society, people with developmental disabilities have difficulty with social interaction and imagination.

Claudia Emery was tormented with the reality of having to tell her son he would not be going back to his beloved job this season.”I told him you didn’t fit in, whatever that meant,” she said. “How do you explain that That’s what started the whole Facebook frenzy. As a mom, how do you explain that to a special-needs person who has worked a job 12 years That was my biggest concern.”

Public outrage was sparked when a family friend and former co-worker, Matt Redline, took to social media to display his frustration at the decision. When the two friends woke up the next morning the post had gone viral with over 12,000 shares from supporters all over the country. “At first I was really freaked out because I never had this happen before,” Redline, who enjoyed working for the park, said.”I never meant to wage a war, but this needed to be brought to someone’s attention. Obviously, his disability didn’t prevent him from doing his job or they wouldn’t have hired him back for 12 years.”

Redline was not the only one outraged by what happened to Emery, and the park’s decision turned out to cost it quite a bit of business. Following the news of what happened to Emery, President of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in Philadelphia John McNesby announced that his union, which is one of the largest in the nation, would not hold its annual picnic at Dorney, where it has taken place for the last three years. The picnic usually brings an estimated 4,000 people to the park.

“[The situation] resonated with people. It really upset a lot of us,” McNesby said. “I understand that [Dorney Park has] a business to run and it’s their prerogative to do as they wish, but Chris should have been grandfathered in or something. It’s a shame.” McNesby also added that it touched some of his staff personally because they have children with special needs.

The park denied firing Chris, instead claiming they offered him coaching and a second interview. Dorney Vice President Mike Fehnel reached out to Emery offering him a position for his 13th season. Karen Shoemaker mentioned it was nice that the park offered to rehire Emery but that, without social media attention, many other qualified special-needs employees do not get a fair chance.

Despite the offer from Dorney to have Emery return, he decided to pursue other opportunities. Emery was initially devastated by the decision of the park, but after the wave of positivity and support on social media, the disappointment turned to pride.”People were being nice to me this morning. People I don’t even know,” he said. “It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel happy and proud.”

Claudia Emery said that while her son chose not to continue his employment at Dorney, she and her family hold no reservations against the company personally but hope they take her son’s situation as a learning experience.

“It was all a little too late for us,” she said. “This never should have happened. It just wasn’t fair. I’m not going to boycott Dorney. That’s not fair to him either. I just want them to revise that interview process. I hope this helps another family.”

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