4 Ways for movie theaters to improve accessibility

movie theatre with wheelchair accessible spaces

4 Ways for movie theaters to improve accessibility

Going to the movies. It’s a treasured American pastime enjoyed by people of every age, from five to 95. Over the years, the price of the tickets and the color and quality of films may have changed, but it seems little else has: traditions like popcorn and candy, and the classic first date plan of “dinner-and-a-movie” are still going strong. But there’s something else about the movies that hasn’t changed, and it’s about time that it did — the limited accessibility of movie theaters.

A trip to the movies should be fun for everyone, right? The truth is, the entire process can be stressful and uncomfortable for people with mobility issues. Here are just a few of our thoughts about how cinemas can improve accessibility for all moviegoers.

  1. Offer wheelchair seating in multiple locations

Whether you use a wheelchair or not, you’ve seen it: the big handicap section at the front of the theater, the seats closest to the screen. If you’ve ever noticed someone sitting there, you’d have seen them craning their neck to see the film. Not only is this uncomfortable and unfair, but it goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations for “assembly areas,” which includes spaces like lecture halls, auditoriums, stadiums and movie theaters. The regulation states, “Wheelchair spaces must provide spectators with choices of seating locations and viewing angles that are substantially equivalent to, or better than, seating for other spectators,” and further specifies that for stadium-style movie theaters, wheelchair spaces must be located within the rear 60% of the seats.

In addition to providing poor viewing angles, the practice of grouping wheelchair seating at the front of a theater often prevents non-ambulatory viewers from sitting beside their family and friends. In this scenario, wheelchair users are prevented from a full and equal moviegoing experience.  Much of the “fun” of a trip to the movies is going together, sharing the popcorn, holding your date’s hand or glancing over to see your friend laughing at the same parts. Everyone deserves access to a variety of seating, as well as the opportunity to sit beside the people they came with.

  1. Improve restroom accessibility

Restrooms are frequently a problem area for people with disabilities, and cinemas are no exception. As with many public spaces, movie theater restrooms should be ADA compliant, but don’t always follow regulations. It is important to install restroom appliances and fixtures at the appropriate height and location so that non-ambulatory customers can access them — all businesses, including cinemas, need to follow ADA guidelines for clearance space and installing necessary fixtures (for example, toilet paper and paper towel dispensers, sinks and hand dryers) within reach.

Moreover, there is room for improvement outside what is technically required. Not everyone can use the restroom independently, and for this reason, we recommend installing an adult changing table. For example, Pressalit’s Adult Changing Table 1000 is electrically height-adjustable to allow carers to provide wheelchair transfers and toileting assistance at the correct ergonomic height. Because an adult changing table can accommodate the weight of most older children and adults, it also can be used for babies, eliminating the need for a baby changing station.

The alternative? Moviegoers who require toileting assistance are changed on the floor or the trunk of a car, or they simply can’t be changed during the outing. Installing an adult changing table in your restrooms shows the disabled community, as well as their caregivers, that your business sees them as people who are deserving of dignity and respect.

  1. Design wheelchair-accessible ticket booths and refreshment counters

So your cinema has handicap parking and ramps for accessible entry. But what happens when non-ambulatory customers enter the building? First, they’ll have to purchase a ticket, assuming they didn’t purchase one online. When they approach the ticket counter, is it within reach for them to make the transaction independently? If there is a glass partition with a speaker, will they be able to hear it and communicate effectively with staff, or is it too high above their head? It’s also important that the cashier can easily see them from behind the counter in order to provide service.

According to ADA guidelines, sales and service counters should be at least 36 inches long and no more than 36 inches above the floor. They also need a clear floor space of 30×48 inches in front of the counter (it can be parallel or perpendicular to the counter) to allow wheelchair access. The same requirements apply to concession counters. For the latter, it should also be considered whether menus and displays are visible to all customers. Can the candy options, popcorn sizes, etc. be seen from a seated position, or is there something obstructing the view? Indivo Adjustable Tables & Counters are a great solution to ensure complete visibility for seated customers. 

Designing service counters, or even sections of these counters, to be accessible to the non-ambulatory allows more equal access for moviegoers with a range of abilities. If this is not possible, at the very least, staff should be trained to be aware of different abilities and notice when customers need assistance.

  1. Accommodate carers or companions free of charge

Many people with disabilities need a companion or caretaker to accompany them to the theater, whether it’s to provide general assistance navigating the theater and making purchases, help them use the restroom or tend to any other needs. 

Some movie theaters, like Regal Cinemas, offer a free “Companion Pass” for the person accompanying a person with a disability. Although this is not specified by ADA, it should be required for all theaters. Charging the companion of someone with a disability for a ticket is discriminatory, because it limits access to spaces enjoyed by the general public — and people with disabilities often can’t access these spaces without assistance.

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