In 2017, the movie industry in the United States generated $43.4 billion in revenue. This impressive number is not a positive sign for the movie industry as a whole. The growth rate is projected at only 2 percent for the next five years. This slow growth rate is largely due to the fact that there is an increasingly broad array of other entertainment options. On-Demand video, online streaming and other options are funneling movie consumers away from the theaters.

Movie theaters need to do everything they can to keep movie patrons in the seats. This means that theaters need to consider the rights of individuals with disabilities. Especially since there are roughly 56 million Americans with a disability.

New Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements are demanding that movie theaters must do more to accommodate moviegoers who happen to have a disability. As of mid-2018, the majority of theaters must now provide closed captioning and audio description for digital movies that are distributed with these accessibility features. If movie patrons make a request for these services, and they are planning on watching a digital movie, cinemas must provide closed captioning and audio description equipment.

In 2016, federal law clarified how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to movie theaters. The federal mandate now requires that public accommodations, including movie theaters, to furnish auxiliary aids and services, which include qualified interpreters, to patrons with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities. The law specifically applies to all cinemas that are showing digital movies as of December 2016. These new regulations went into effect in early 2017, however the mandated included a phased rollout for movie theaters. This allows those movie theaters that are still updating from analog to digital technology still have time to be in compliance with the new mandate.

If a cinema only shows movies in analog film or they are an old-fashioned drive-in, they are exempt from this new mandate. Whether it is the closed captioning and audio description services, the devices must be provided in a manner that is suitable to the people using the devices. The law does not require older theaters to convert to newer digital projection systems.

As of June 2018, digital movie theaters must provide a means for delivering closed captioning and audio description to any customer who requests the devices and service. This is a positive step in the right direction. Yet, there are industry observers who argue that movie theaters are still not doing enough for their customers. Particularly in regard to how their employees interact with the patrons who have a disability.

Beyond considering the needs of individuals with hearing, vision and speech disabilities; movie theaters need to be more aware of the general needs of their patrons with disabilities. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make accommodations for people with disabilities, but there is a feeling that businesses do the bare minimum to stay within the law. Some people with disabilities feel that their local movie theaters do not provide sufficient access for their customers with disabilities. Similarly, when patrons complain about the limited access, there is a lackluster response from movie theater employees.

This lack of training and understanding is evident in the number of recent incidents over the last few years.  From issues over reserved seating and wheelchair access, closed captions devices that failed to work properly, to the removal of an individual with disabilities due to noise complaints. In all of these instances, a lack of understanding made the situation worse. In fact, this lack of understanding can quickly escalate from a minor situation to a tragic event. This is exactly what happened to Robert Ethan Saylor in 2013.

Robert Saylor was a 26-year old man with Down syndrome who was dragged from his movie seat by off-duty police officers. Mr. Saylor had failed to purchase a movie ticket for the film he was watching. Theater employees and law enforcement personnel ignored advice from the caregiver and forced Mr. Saylor to the ground. In the process, Saylor’s larynx was fractured and he died of asphyxia. The officers in the incident were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but the Saylor family was eventually awarded a $1.9 million settlement in a civil lawsuit.

All of these situations demonstrate the need for a better awareness and understanding of individuals with disabilities. If this is accomplished, we can greatly reduce the number of minor misunderstandings as well as tragic events.

The eWebschedule staff routinely reports on news stories that impact people with developmental disabilities. Please check back in the future for updates on this topic.

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