In this day and age all cinemas should be accessible for disabled people, right? Emma Purcell investigates to find out about people’s experiences of accessibility and customer service at cinemas, as well as what regulations are, or should be, in place to improve equality for disabled people at UK cinemas.
Going to the cinema should be something everyone can enjoy, whether going by yourself, with your family, a group of friends or even on a date.
However, for many disabled people it has become a challenge due to the lack of accessibility, support and respect being given towards customers with disabilities.
Let’s look at the five main challenges disabled people face in cinemas:
- Respect for medical needs
For many disabled people, it’s essential to have various pieces of equipment to help them live and access things. However in the case of some cinemas, all morals of acceptance and equality have vanished.
In January, it was reported that a man was told to leave a screen because the sound of his ventilator apparently disturbed the other customers. Richard Bridger, 31, who has muscular dystrophy, was thrown out of a screening of Taken 3 at an Odeon Cinema in Epsom after 6 people complained about the noise of his machine. The chain has since apologised and invited him to come and see the film as a guest of Odeon.
- Wheelchair access and carers seats in screenings
Accessing screenings can be a huge problem for many wheelchair users. Issues include there not being enough wheelchair spaces, the only accessible seats being situated too far forward or too far back, or carers getting charged for their ticket. On some occasions there may not be access to the screen at all.
On Scope’s ‘Real Life Stories’ webpage, a mother of a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, told her story of how she was unable to take him to see the Theory of Everything as it was showing in the screens upstairs, which were not accessible.
In response, the Head of Guest Experience at Odeon, Jason Stanton, said: ‘Odeon Harrogate is inside a listed building, so we are unfortunately unable to change its layout to add wheelchair access to the two screens that currently don’t have it. We therefore try to rotate weekly the films we show in the three screens that do have access for people with disabilities, to ensure a full range of films is available.’
Although the cinema appears to be trying to co-ordinate screening to make all the films it shows accessible to all, I wonder whether this idea is fair? Why should disabled customers only be allowed to attend a showing of a film on one occasion while other people can go whenever at their free will?
I’ve also read about experiences where carers have not had anywhere to sit themselves. One wheelchair user, Charley Zakrzewski said: ‘We went to the cinema and no one would move to allow my carer and I to sit in the disabled section. The manager is meant to force them to move, but didn’t, so we couldn’t watch the film and we didn’t get a refund.’
Another wheelchair user Lucy Hale and her carer were so adamant to see a film that they took drastic action: ‘I’ve been forced to pay for carers tickets and once my carer sat on the floor through a film because the seats next to the wheelchair space were taken and the people in them wouldn’t move.’
Fortunately not all is gloom. Sarah Croft explains how her local cinema gave her access to the seats in the middle rows: ‘My local cinema have had a lift put in so I am able to sit on middle line of seats. All the staff know how to book the space and can use the lift. It’s a big step forward in some areas.’
In addition, The Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge was praised for great service by Jo Allen, a wheelchair user, who was accompanied by her partner. She said: ‘They even brought a comfy chair into the screen so my partner to sit comfortably next to me. It’s an adorable place. Well worth a visit.’
- Accessible bookings
Being able to book accessibility seating at cinemas can be a challenge at times. Sometimes booking facilities are limited and other times bookings are made but on arrival to the cinema, no booking has been recorded.
Tmara Senior explains her experience of booking: ‘The Odeon website isn’t as accessible as it should be and you can’t book by telephone, which is annoying as I find it easier to book by telephone and to be able to speak to someone. There is an accessibility helpline, but they don’t use an 0845 number anymore and that number isn’t on the website, it still shows the 0845 number. How come the local theaters in West Yorkshire can do internet and telephone bookings but the local cinemas in West Yorkshire can’t?’
- Audio Description
Blind and visually impaired people rely on audio description to help them follow along the action on scenes. However, many cinemas or films fail to include this or have little knowledge of how we can access it.
I had my own experience of this back in December when I went to watch a showing of the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 at Vue cinema in Portsmouth. According to the website there was a showing of the film that did include audio description. However, when we got there, the audio description appeared to not work.
Luckily the staff were very helpful and apologetic and tried to see if another headset would work, but unfortunately it still failed. I later contacted their customer service team who offered me a £20 gift voucher as a ‘gesture of good will’ to make up for the inconvenience.
I also asked for an explanation as to why the audio description was unavailable and whether they were committed in making changes to make sure these problems don’t occur again.
Paula Page had a similar experience to me. She says: ‘There was one time I went to the cinema and the audio description didn’t work at all. However, they were very good and gave us a voucher to go again. I have been twice since, and it worked fine.’
Steve Moseley told us his story of trying to access audio description and how he took it to the next level: ‘Before Christmas I wanted to see the new Hobbit film but was told by Cineworld that it was not audio described. I told RNIB campaigns but it was a total waste of time. I also emailed Peter Jackson and New Line cinema and had no response.
In Bristol we have Warhorse playing again and not one performance audio described. It is disgusting that the entertainment industry makes billions and yet cannot audio describe their films. This industry is a constant discrimination against disabled people.’
- Loop systems
Loop systems are an important feature for those who have hearing impairments which, according to Hearing Link; ‘provides a magnetic, wireless signal that is picked up by the hearing aid when it is set to ‘T’ (Telecoil) setting.’ However, for Hazel Simmons, she managed to get more than she bargained for.
She told us: ‘I do have one amusing story from a cinema, the cinema in question had just newly installed a loop system in all their screens (it was a multiplex cinema) – I am hearing impaired and at the time I needed to use the loop system (I don’t now as I have a BAHA) so I was watching the film and then I realised I was actually hearing the sound track from the next door screen and not the one I was watching. I effectively got 2 films for the price of one – one I could hear but couldn’t see and one I could see but couldn’t hear.’
What disabled facilities are said to be provided in cinemas?
Although there is evidence that disabled people have encountered poor quality service and access, many cinemas are convinced they do provide accessibility and support to their disabled customers.
Have a read of these pages which gives information on what cinemas say they will provide:
Cineworld – www.cineworld.co.uk/accessibility
Odeon – www.odeon.co.uk/accessibility
Vue – www.myvue.com/faqs
Do you think cinemas are doing enough to help and support disabled people?
By Emma Purcell
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