Wheelchair Accessibility In Cinemas And Why It Must Be Improved

Rachy Lewis at cinema

It’s a bit baffling to think that my first visit to the cinema happened in my very late teens. At the time, I was visiting Manchester for the first time and discovered a city that was significantly more accessible than the one I was coming from. Growing up in Galliate, a small northern Italian town near Milan I did not grow up going to the cinema. Frankly, there just wasn’t any around my part of town. The closest one was in a neighbouring town and teens would have to beg their parents to drive them all the way there and back. The cinema experience was not one I could write about then, not as an individual nor as a wheelchair user. Much has changed since then though.

After high school, I packed my life into suitcases again and moved to Manchester permanently with my mum and sister. Accessibility really did enable me to be more independent as I could go around freely and as I pleased. Living in Italy came with a lot more perks than it did downsides, but the lack of accessible facilities was a shortcoming that couldn’t just be overlooked.

The cinema is no longer an unfamiliar space to me. In fact, I go often and have been doing so for multiple years now.

Whilst I remember my first cinema experience vividly, I have definitely lost count of how many times I’ve laughed out loud in front of large screens in darkened rooms. I love the whole ritual and routine that enhance the experience. I have nothing against the thirty-minute trailers and ads that play on rotation inconsiderate for the viewer’s time and excitement for the main course. Some may say that’s annoying, but I get it. Just like the opening act during a live show, that is part of the ritual too So is standing in line for popcorn and coke or feeling grossed out by the unrestrained PDA of the couple in the front row. All those things are what make the cinema experience worthwhile. Without them, I would easily choose Netflix in bed and swift delivery instead.

Simply put, I do enjoy the cinema experience indeed, but nonetheless, as a disabled person society hasn’t allowed accessibility to be just that – simple.

Rachy Lewis
Rachy Lewis

Over the years, I have been able to visit various cinemas in Manchester. As a serial mover, I have had to call different areas of this city home and have had to warm up to new surrounding walls every time.

My experience with cinemas here has shown me that in terms of accessibility the ones I’ve visited have been very similar, both in pros and cons. I’ll tell you why.

In general, I haven’t really had issues with accessing cinemas when it comes to the buildings themselves. Getting in and out of the buildings is something I usually do with ease although they sometimes require two or more lifts to get up to the screen rooms. It would be something I’d sadly expect to happen at some point, but so far, I have never been sent away due to lifts being out of service. I have a feeling that’s just luck! Knock on wood that doesn’t happen.

Because I’m familiar with the cinemas in my area, I usually buy my ticket upon arrival directly at the counter. I would definitely advise purchasing them online when going to a new cinema, that way it’s easy to see where the designated wheelchair spaces are.

Currently, I regularly go to Odeon Cinemas or Vue Cinema Printworks and I’d say to me they are similar where accessibility is concerned. I do prefer the Odeon though.

My main issue with accessibility in the cinemas I go to is the movie viewing experience. The designated wheelchair spaces are always in the very front of the room which makes for a viewing experience that is neither pleasurable nor ideal.

It’s like zooming in on a picture so much that you can no longer make out the elements that caught your eyes in the first place. The images become difficult to read and the subjects seemingly distorted. Having to be situated in the very front of the room means having to tilt your head upwards for about two hours straight. Needless to say, that makes for a rather uncomfortable viewing experience.

The designated wheelchair space being where it is situated easily becomes the cause of a stiff painful neck by the end of the movie. They also do not add many seats next to the wheelchair space so if one is with a large group of people, they are then forced to separate from the rest of their company. If you were to ask me, I’d say that’s absurd!

Sometimes, I wonder how much thought companies put into guaranteeing places are accessible. It appears as though they add accessible features just so they can tick a box to be categorised as such. I can’t help but wonder if the area was sat in and tested before being designated for wheelchair users. Were disabled people consulted in this matter…?
I’m inclined to believe we were not consulted and even if we were, it would take a lot of effort for the cinemas to change their overall layout and structure. Perhaps, it would be money, time, and remodelling. Perhaps, they are not ready to do that.

I’m not trying to complain unnecessarily, but this is something that has been on my mind for a while. What I have been doing for some time now is climbing up a few stairs to get up to a better position. With the help of the side rails and a familiar hand, I normally walk up and leave my wheelchair empty in the designated area. It’s not always ideal and can be sometimes awkward, but I do it because I am able to and if I paid for tickets, well, I want my money’s worth. Also, although they don’t complain, I do wish that whoever is in my company can also get a good view of the movie they’re excited about. It’s hard to do that from up close.

Rachy Lewis at cinema
Rachy Lewis at cinema

It shouldn’t be a necessity for me to either leave my wheelchair or settle for a sore neck and a bad view. I’m also very aware there are wheelchair users who would be unable to leave their chairs to climb steps. Plus, having to do that does defeat the purpose of disabled access.

The truth is that able-bodied individuals also avoid seats that are too close to the screens because it’s difficult to see. Why then should people with disabilities settle for that?

I know there are cinemas with wheelchair spaces in the back for a better view of the screen, but I have yet to find any near my area. I strongly believe wheelchair spaces in the back should be the standard and not the exception. At the very least there should be more seating options for people with disabilities so we can choose for ourselves where we’d like to be.

Accessibility has improved a lot in the past few years and that is something to be grateful for. I am grateful indeed. I still think though that it is important that we continue to point out issues that cannot and shouldn’t be ignored.

For a long time, things have had to be adapted in order for people with disabilities to not be left out. Now, I think it’s time we go beyond adaptation as a society and acknowledge the needs of everybody from the very start.

Your restless romantic roamer

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