Accessible Cinema for All

Katie Fannin discusses the importance of inclusive cinema experiences in Glasgow and beyond.

In October, it was announced that the Glasgow Film Theatre had launched a special series of monthly Dementia-friendly film screenings dubbed Movie Memories. The screenings are “designed especially for people experiencing early to mid stages of dementia, their carers and/or families with the aim of creating an accessible and friendly environment for a group of people who may often feel they will be no longer welcome in social situations, such as taking a trip to the cinema. After a successful pop-up screening of Singin’ in the Rain at Dundasvale Residents Hall last year, the Movie Memories series officially launched at the GFT on the 19th of October with a screening of Whisky Galore.

The launch of this programme at the GFT is part of a wider trend of efforts by the independent cinema to make the film theatre experience more and more accessible for everyone. The GFT already runs the Access Film Club, an autism-friendly programme in collaboration with the National Autistic Society Scotland, which organises regular screenings and post-film discussions in what they describe as a “friendly and welcoming environment”. The GFT even became the first cinema in the UK to receive the Autism Friendly Award 2017. On top of this, they also run Visible Cinema: a D/deaf and Hard of Hearing film programme involving captioned or subtitled screenings and post-film discussions with integrated BSL and Speech To Text Service. 

On a broader scale, cinemas both big and small appear to be making significant changes to improve their accessibility. Both Odeon and Cineworld, two of the biggest national cinema corporations in the UK, provide audio description headsets for blind and partially sighted people, and captioned/subtitled screenings for deaf or hard of hearing people, as well as specific seating for wheelchair users and people with restricted mobility. Alongside this, the CEA card initiative allows for disabled people to purchase tickets for carers at a reduced rate. In addition, the Odeon also offer autism-friendly screenings, where the cinema environment has been altered slightly in order to reduce discomfort amongst those who may be especially sensitive to loud noises, as well as providing allowance for increased levels of movement and sound. Whilst still slightly behind independent cinemas, these small improvements are vital in ensuring that the cinematic experience includes everyone.

However, the number of stories online about people being turned away from cinemas due to a lack of wheelchair access, or even being forced to use service lifts or crawl up stairs to access screenings suggest that there is still a very long way to go in terms of accessibility within the cinema industry. Even when attempts have been made to improve accessibility, the finished changes often fail to meet the needs of those they are trying to include; such as wheelchair seating being awkwardly positioned at the front or even the extreme edges of cinema screens. The focus still seems to be on efficiency as opposed to comfort. Furthermore, these physical changes don’t necessarily translate into awareness amongst staff. In response to this, the Trailblazers campaign, run by Muscular Dystrophy UK, are calling on cinemas to commit to improving accessibility and inclusion, particularly for wheelchair users. An investigation conducted by the group found that more than half of all major chain cinemas have uncomfortable wheelchair accessible seating areas, and that one in three of the major chain cinemas has bad or very bad disability awareness among staff. In order to address this, the campaigners are now working with cinemas nationwide to develop solutions to the problems faced by disabled cinema-goers.

At a time when there’s still significant room for improvement regarding cinema accessibility, programmes like Movie Memories and autism-friendly screenings are an important step towards improving cultural engagement and social inclusion amongst groups who are often excluded from experiencing the arts, due to a variety of societal barriers. It is hugely important for all organisations to take responsibility for removing those barriers by implementing constructive changes, in order to increase access and inclusivity for everyone. As said by Jodie Wilkinson, the GFT’s Programme Engagement Coordinator, “A diagnosis of dementia should not ostracise people and so there is a social duty to make sure people still have the choice to engage”.  Experiencing the excitement and splendour of the cinema should not be something limited to neurotypical or non-disabled individuals. If all it takes to improve inclusion are a few small changes, such as introducing multiple customer lifts or putting on captioned screenings, cinemas have little excuse not to work towards becoming as accessible as possible.

[Katie Fannin – @katfnan]

Read the Trailblazers Cinema Report here.

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