Photo Description: Photo taken from the top row of a movie theater, showing the stairs down to the entrance and the wheelchair space at the very front of the auditorium.The majority of wheelchair travel is not to faraway places, but within our own communities – to the shopping mall, park, or even the movie theater. Today, I want to talk about the latter.

I used to be a committed moviegoer. In college, I visited the cinema twice a week – to catch a new release at its first showing on Thursday night, and on Sunday afternoons for the discounted matinee rate. I love film, and really enjoyed the movie theater experience… until I became disabled. In my 3.5 years as a wheelchair user, I’ve only been to the movies 4 times. In this post, I want to talk about the wheelchair accessibility issues that plague cinemas around the country (and world), and a new idea that could make movies more accessible to people with disabilities.

Movie theater accessibility comes down to seating.

Before my disability, I had the choice of any seat in the movie theater. My preferred spot was about halfway up in the auditorium, where my eyes were level with the center of the screen.

With my wheelchair, my choice has been reduced to a limited number of accessible spaces. The location of those wheelchair “parking” spots varies, and is based on the design of the movie theater or screening room. Since nearly all theaters have a stairway that runs alongside the rows of seats, with each row elevated over the one before it, I no longer have my pick of “any row.” Commonly, wheelchair accessible spaces are located at the back (top) of the theater, at the very front (bottom) of the theater, or a few rows up from the first. Some multi-screen cinemas have screening rooms of different sizes and design. This can be frustrating, because I never know what to expect – If my movie is playing in theater 1, I’ll have to sit directly in front of (and below) the screen, but if it is showing in theater 2, I’ll sit at the very back (and above) the screen.

Photo Description: Neon movie theater sign that says 'Cinemas Box Office'.

“Stop complaining. You can watch a movie like anyone else.”

I’ve heard this in conversation before, and frequently see it in comments on articles about a lack of access to movie theaters. I’ve stopped going to the movies because my seating (really “parking”) option is exclusionary. A 2011 investigative article in The Guardian exposed this lack of access:

During the investigation we discovered what a common experience uncomfortable seating areas and poor views are for disabled customers. One in three of the cinemas owned by the major chains that we visited had bad or very bad views of the screen from the wheelchair accessible area, poor access between the ticket office and the auditorium and bad or very bad staff disability awareness.

With some multi-screen cinemas having only one accessible screen, choice was already extremely limited even for those who managed to book early. On top of this, disabled people are frequently unable to sit near friends or family due to a lack of or poorly organised accessible seating.

In many theaters, I have to park my wheelchair behind the row of seats where my friends are. Being split up from my group diminishes my experience, and makes for an awkward moment when we park to take our seats in separate areas.

My seating location and viewpoint are important too, and oftentimes challenging to my comfort. If the wheelchair space is close to or directly underneath the screen, I have to crane my neck to watch the film. This can leave me with significant neck and/or back pain. If the accessible space is at the back of the theater, my view is potentially diminished by the distance from the screen. For those whose mobility impairments are caused by disabilities that are more significant than mine, the wheelchair spaces available may not allow them to see the screen or comfortably enjoy the experience.

A story published this January, also in the United Kingdom, described a wheelchair user who was kicked out of the theater after moving from the designated space. In that theater, the Whiteley Cineworld in Farnham, wheelchair spaces are located at the front of the auditorium and close to the screen.

Path to Creating Equal Access in Theaters

As with any accessibility challenge in the built environment, changes must be made to architecture and design to improve access. Theaters that are newsy constructed should include wheelchair spaces next to seats at multiple levels of the auditorium. Disability needs vary greatly, and accessible design must account for them.

Photo Description: A living room TV, with DVDs, popcorn and a remote control on a coffee table in the foreground.

A new business venture could improve access to film.

For many disabled people, getting to the movie theater can be a challenge in and of itself. When poor access awaits at the cinema, the prospect of going becomes much less attractive. Given my frustrating experiences as a wheelchair user at the theater, I now wait to see new movies on iTunes, which is often months after they are first shown on the big screen.

A new business venture by Sean Parker (the creator of Napster), dubbed “the Screening Room,” could expand access to movies by bringing new releases into the home without delay. From an article this week in The Daily Beast:

The particulars of Parker’s plan are simple: purchase a $150 proprietary set-top box that connects to your TV, and then use it to rent premiere movies for $50 per title (watchable over a 48-hour period).

If the cost sounds prohibitive, I agree. The Daily Beast describes it as “the opening salvo in an assault that theaters are unlikely to sustain.” Technology and competition have already transformed the music and television industries, and movies will surely be next. The innovations in media distribution are dramatically improving access and bringing convenience to all. A decade ago, I purchased CDs from Walmart – today, it takes only a few clicks to add songs to my music playlist via iTunes.

While I wouldn’t pay $50 for access to a movie title, many will, and it is a step in the right direction for accessibility. Progress that is worthwhile comes slowly. In the meantime, let’s continue to expose injustices and barriers to equal access everywhere they exist.

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