I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for over a week since returning from the Friends For Life conference. For those of you unaware, Friends For Life is an annual diabetes conference that focuses on those families, friends, children, and adults who share their lives with type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes. I wanted to share it sooner, but I am one to take my time with things, and consider them in relation to the circumstances that can’t always be seen through raging emotion. I prefer to err on the side of kindness, rather than anger.
Throughout the week of the conference, which was held at Disney’s Coronado Springs resort, the Disney cast members did an incredible job of taking care of the 3000+ people with diabetes who were there. From catering to those people with food allergies and diet restrictions, to their efforts to limit the chances of a person with diabetes getting stuck in a long line or stressful situation that resulted in a severe low blood sugar episode, the cast members and Guest Relations at Disney did a fantastic job overall. The staff of Children With Diabetes, the organization that coordinates the Friends For Life conference, played a big role in making sure our needs were met as well.
On one of the last evenings of our time together at the Friends For Life conference, a group of us decided to go to Downtown Disney to have dinner and do some shopping before wrapping up the week. We split into separate groups, and I went along with half the group to Fulton’s Crab House for dinner. We had a couple members of our party with food allergies, and the executive chef came to the table and discussed meal options with them, and made certain that they were taken care of. It was Disney’s attention to detail and customer service at its best.
After dinner, we ventured to Disney’s Design-A-Tee store, where guests can create a T-shirt with a familiar Disney character on it, and add their own text to make the shirt a personalized and custom souvenir. I found a great image of Cruella de Vil (the crazed, wild-eyed image when she’s driving the car in the cartoon version of 101 Dalmatians), and being someone that battles low blood sugars on a regular basis, it spoke to me of what it feels like when my blood sugar drops too low and all I can think about is how much I need to get glucose, sugar, candy, juice, or anything I can get my hands on to survive. Given that this feeling often includes confusion, and leaves me without the ability to properly form sentences, a modified version of the popular phrase from the video game Zero Wing, “All your base are belong to us,” popped into my head to go along with the image:
All your candy
are belong to me!
Happy with my creation, and satisfied that it contained no profanity, no hidden or derogatory meanings, and was something that I could wear all around Disney and at the Friends For Life conference without offending anyone and where both children and adults who live every day with diabetes know exactly what “I’m low” means and the confusion that often comes with the focused drive of finding something to eat to survive, I submitted my order and took it to one of the cast members in the store to have it printed.
I was almost immediately told that they would not print that message on the T-shirt.
I asked to speak with a supervisor, and she came out to talk to me, and was questioning me on what the words meant. I explained to her exactly what I’ve explained to you above, and her response to me was, “But it’s not even in proper English.”
I responded to her that it isn’t supposed to be proper English, and in addition to that it wasn’t fair for her to judge what is and is not proper English on a T-shirt. Many guests of Walt Disney World come from all around the world, some of which do not even speak English. I appealed to her the facts of the matter, that there was no profanity, no hidden or derogatory meaning, and I was clearly not trying to hide some evil motive because I was having a conversation with her explaining the entire intent of the T-shirt.
Finally, she seemed to understand that the message on the shirt was harmless, even if she didn’t understand exactly what a low blood sugar felt like to a person with diabetes. Just to be safe, however, she wanted to get the approval of the store manager, Robb.
She returned a few minutes later to tell me that the store manager, Robb, said that they absolutely would not print the T-shirt. He wasn’t even willing to talk to me about it. No meant no, and that was the end of it.
I was floored. How could something so innocent and so familiar to so many people who live with diabetes be so misunderstood?
A-Flizzle and I had purchased other items around Downtown Disney, spending our hard-earned and well-saved vacation money to take a bit of the Disney magic (and merchandise) home with us. This encounter over a simple T-shirt and the blatant lack of willingness to even attempt to understand a customer’s perspective, in fact 3000+ potential customer perspectives, really took the magic out of the experience for us.
We took our other purchases to the register in the store and told the cast member behind the cash register that we would like to return our items. As is typical in any return situation, he asked if there was a problem with the merchandise. We shared that we were unsatisfied with the service we had been given when trying to create a T-shirt relating to life with diabetes, and how the store manager had taken the joy and magic out of the experience. It left us not wanting anything Disney.
The cast member replied, “I’m Robb, the store manager, and I made that decision.”
Robb said that he read the message, and he took “I’m low! All your candy are belong to me!” to be derogatory on the T-shirt. He said that he took the words “low” and “candy” to an offensive and derogatory place in his mind.
I couldn’t help it. The only words I could get out of my mouth were, “And you work for Disney?” I was even offended at that point. What kind of people are being hired to run stores, attractions, and cultivate the Disney magic when they associate the words “low” and “candy” with being derogatory?
I might could understand it if the shirt had said, “I’m high.” It’s no secret that drugs are a problem in America, and unless you’re among a bunch of people with diabetes with blood sugars over 200 mg/dl, the phrase “I’m high” would normally mean something inappropriate for association with the image of a Disney character.
But that isn’t what the T-shirt said, nor would it have made sense with that message. It said:
All your candy
are belong to me!
I explained to Robb, the store manager, exactly the intent of the shirt and what the words meant. He volunteered an interesting bit of information that I hadn’t expected: Robb was a person with type 2 diabetes.
Finally, a breakthrough! I said to him, “Oh, wow! So you know what I’m talking about when your blood sugar goes too low and you’ll eat just about anything in sight to stop the shaking, the confusion, and keep yourself from blacking out.”
Robb said, “No, I don’t have it that bad.”
I was speechless. Not something that happens to me very often, especially not at a diabetes conference.
Robb could have said, “Look, I appreciate the message you are trying to share, but based on my training and experience, I just don’t feel comfortable printing the T-shirt with this message on it. I assure you I will take the original wording and share it with my superiors, so that we can better address needs such as those of people with diabetes in the future. For now, could I help you maybe adjust the wording of the message or help you create a different T-shirt?”
I would have happily walked out of there with no T-shirt, or maybe even a different T-shirt, and this blog post would have taken a completely different tone had that been the case. Instead, as the Disney customer, I was left feeling like I had done something wrong, that I was a terrible person for even attempting to print such “offensive” and “derogatory” content on a T-shirt, and that I was no longer welcome.
And I felt like a big part of that was because I had diabetes, and Robb didn’t “have it that bad.” Nobody at any point in the process had stopped to consider that maybe embracing a message such as “I’m low” was my way of dealing with the frightening consequences that can be a result of actually having a low blood sugar, such as a seizure, or even death.
To put into perspective the tame message that I was trying to feature with the image of a not-so-tame Disney character, consider these questions. What are the appropriate words to associate with a crazed, wild-eyed image of Cruella de Vil, a character whose ambition is to steal puppies and skin them to make a fur coat? Maybe this…
All your puppy skins
are belong to me!
And yet I’m the one blamed for putting an offensive message on a T-shirt referencing the necessity of overcoming a low blood sugar. I would have happily gone back and made a T-shirt with Coco on it and had it simply say, “Eeek! Eeek!” had I been treated more like the loyal, lifelong Disney customer that I am and less like a pariah.
Disney, you can do better.