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Disability Theater Access in 2018

The Cinemark movie theater I frequent in Sacramento boasts four wheelchair spaces. As a movie lover with disabilities this is a process not unlike fitting in additional guests at a dinner party. You wonder how friends will sit together and have optimal access to the food on hand. A trip to my local theater to see “Black Panther” in February saw my metaphorical dinner party end with the equivalent of thrown plates and wasted food, a sad reminder of how movie theaters in America continuously fail patrons with mobility issues.

At this particular screening I was told what was left was “front row only,” a term I followed with a mirthless chuckle. The ticket taker probably didn’t want to assume, but considering I can’t do anything but wear my wheelchair, with pride, it seemed they’d forgotten the layout of the theater and the fact that the front row’s stairs were inaccessible to wheelchair patrons. My usual response in times such as these is to ask to be seated in one of the four open wheelchair spaces on tap, a mandatory requirement per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The response was the seats had been reserved online, another flaw in the chronic reliance on reserved seating meant to lure audiences into the dying world of the movie theater. But, in this case, the ticket seller was willing to make an exception and reseat the unseen handicapped ticket holders.

Advocating for a seat and aiding the ticket taker into reconfiguring the theater to make it work left my emotions high. Anxiety plagued me for the inevitable confrontation I knew would happen with the people who had “reserved” the seats I was sitting adjacent to and the one my companion was sitting in. Call me crazy, but I had little faith the theater would be able to spot these people and explain the situation to them. As the lights went down and the feature started my eyes went back to the two empty seats. These people obviously weren’t coming. What was the harm in sitting in an empty seat? It may surprise you to hear, but those of us who live in wheelchairs 24/7 enjoy relaxing in a comfy seat not attached to us. Back in the days of free-for-all seating this wouldn’t have been an issue, especially considering the theater, despite that dreaded “front row only warning,” was far from full. As if my sitting down in the seat released a clarion call, three able-bodied—I use the term in the sense they could easily go up a stair to sit elsewhere—young adults arrived, like the three bears asking why someone was sitting in their chair (literally). I prepped for a fight; this wasn’t the first time I’d had to tell people, teeth gritted, that the seats were for the handicapped. The group left and I waited to let the theater do what they’d promised: explain the issue and reseat them, or maybe offer them tickets to another show. 

The arrival of the manager himself told me all I’d need to know. Whispering through the dialogue of a movie already 10 minutes in, the manager said the three didn’t want to give up their seats. I would have to get back into my wheelchair and my companion would have to be moved to an empty seat away from me. Could I have refused to move? Sure. But did I want to ruin other people’s enjoyment of the movie with my resistance, or, worse, be kicked out of the theater? Nerves frayed and with another story I could tell about how movie theaters continually marginalize disabled patrons, my companion and I left. Did the rest of the people in the theater assume I’d been kicked out for some violation? For stealing someone else’s rightful seats? As I wheeled past the three young adults I asked how they felt for taking seats they knew were for the handicapped? Their reply, “We paid for these seats.”

I’d like to believe they didn’t know where they were sitting but disbelief only goes so far. Those booking tickets online who reserve handicap seats see a pop-up, a reminder telling you that, in the event a person with a disability arrives you might be asked to move. So the indignant trio in my theater doubled down on their “right” to those seats. My trip to Humiliation Station complete, I asked for recompense. I knew what’d I get; I’d been here before. I could practically recite the manager’s sincere apology for any misunderstanding. He’d be willing to give me free tickets to come back (Cinemark’s unspoken policy is to never give refunds). Placate and pass the buck. You can’t be mad at a cog in a broken system, so I took the tickets and left. A senior manager called me later and offered me tickets to return that night, free concessions and, gasp, reserved seats of my very own! My friend and I saw the movie, but the damage had been done. How does one fix a problem that only affects a presumably small portion of people?

A movie theater should be a peaceful, relaxing place, and I’m sure it is for most in light of reserved seating. Movie theaters have gussied the concept up as the perfect way for all audiences to get the best seat in the house. But movie fans with wheelchairs or other limited mobility don’t get the best seat—they get the only seat. Theaters are mandated to make approximately 10% of the theater seats accessible, so obtaining the two to four wheelchair spaces in my theater can be like a terrible game of musical chairs. The outdated, ableist thinking is wheelchair users bring their own seat, like a lawn chair you plant on a soccer field. It gives them access, but how is this effective with such a small field to play on? Wheelchair users are often stuck sitting in the front rows, on flat ground with no elevation to keep a clear view. The changeover to wider, recliner-style chairs has actually decreased the number of handicap seats, and many of these new chairs come with oversized footrests or outward facing tray tables that prevent wheelchair users from transferring into them to begin with. The same Cinemark I was in has one presumably handicap seat that requires a wheelchair user to climb over the armrest to transfer into. All so you can find a place to set down your popcorn.

With less seating available theaters must take action to protect the few seats for those who need it or otherwise send a message to patrons with disabilities that they should stay home. I documented my experience on Twitter and the massive swell of support for me and condemnation for the theater was instant. It wasn’t surprising to receive a call from Leslie, a representative from Cinemark’s legal department, the next day. After delegating blame to the local theater manager—another ‘placate and pass’ technique—I offered suggestions to make theaters less stressful for wheelchair patrons. Smaller, regional theaters and concert venues don’t allow online reservations for handicap seats. Would Cinemark consider that? No, according to Leslie, because “people with disabilities want to reserve seats, too.” Ablesplaining aside, this mentality works only if people with disabilities have an equal chance at all seats. There’s no equality when patrons with disabilities are automatically denied access to 90%.

Is this discriminatory? Yes and no. From a functional standpoint the utter inaccessibility of the rest of the theater leaves wheelchair and mobility-impaired users segregated to individual sections. Take the seat or leave. Access becomes a weapon against the disabled, yet the seats are open to everyone through lack or absence of proper enforcement. In some cases, the employees themselves don’t know the policy for handling seating disputes with regards to people with disabilities. Situational and functional discrimination aren’t legal forms of discrimination, yet more often than not building legal teams fall back on blaming the ADA for their own ableism. Leslie herself went this route, emphasizing that Cinemark is conforming with the laws laid out by the ADA. But doesn’t Cinemark want to go above and beyond for its guests? Not in this instance. According to Leslie, if myself and others want more seats we’ll need to demand the ADA up the number themselves. It’s up to the ADA to make businesses do the bare minimum for people with disabilities. The ADA isn’t infallible, but it’s already maligned by corporate lobbyists and government interference that continuously chips away at what it can do. Until people start caring more about disabled issues, businesses will remain apathetic and lazy.

So where does that leave me? And, more importantly, where does it leave people with disabilities who want to enjoy movies? As a critic, I’m fortunate that press screenings don’t have reserved seating in the same way. But as with any travel, disabled people understand we have to prepare in advance. Online reservations are the best way of ensuring you won’t have to argue with someone. But, even then, people interested in transferring out of their wheelchairs might have to take the chance on their device being moved if another patron “reserves” the empty space. I shudder for the day when theaters start charging patrons with disabilities for two seats if they want to transfer and have their wheelchair close. Or, you could do what Leslie “recommended” I do and invest in Cinemark Movie Club—their MoviePass equivalent—to reserve seats. Apparently “helping the handicap navigate our company’s bare minimum seating policy” isn’t listed as a perk on the pamphlet. 

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