A couple of months ago my able-bodied partner and I went to see Arrival at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex and got a first-hand experience of just how alienating accessible seating continues to be for wheelchair users in the city.
My partner got an aisle seat down a single step, while I settled for the wheelchair-designated spot level with the floor to her right. Finding myself perched more than a foot above her with a bar between us, I felt less like I was on a date than on a chaperoning gig, the space and metal barrier all but screaming “No touching.”
Accessibility in Toronto cinemas has come a decent way since the owners of the Uptown Theatre closed their doors rather than renovate the theatre to meet the standards of the Ontarians With Disabilities Act.
Whether they’re quality rep houses like the Royal, modernist museums like the TIFF Bell Lightbox or outposts of a big-tent chain like Cineplex, cinemas in Toronto tend to meet a baseline of accessibility – their entrances more or less passable and their staff friendly and helpful.
When it comes to navigating the actual seating, though, it’s as if wheelchair users have made it past the lobby only to still sit apart in the theatre.
The reason might have to do with the way accessibility continues to be seen as solely the disabled person’s problem. Scholars working in disability studies have long fought for a more nuanced definition of disability that takes into account not just the needs of particular bodies but the way spaces are structured to accommodate only the most average citizens. But the mainstream world has been slow to catch up.
The upshot for disabled movie patrons is that the theatre can feel like a compromised space, built for the uncomplicated body and then awkwardly retrofitted for everyone else. While the foreboding staircases that served as the effective gatekeeper to places like the Uptown are largely a thing of the past, accessible seating still feels like a relic, an inelegant product of outmoded planning and design that views patrons who use wheelchairs as a spatial problem to be solved.
Theatres like the Varsity, Yonge-Dundas and Scotiabank typically slot wheelchairs into front-row aisle gaps to the immediate left or right of a row of regular seats, an afterthought solution that limits patron’ choices, forces their close proximity to the screen and creates extreme viewing angles in locations shared only by latecomers who have no other option.
More worryingly, though, this kind of accessible seating creates invisible barriers between disabled and non-disabled patrons even as theatres’ well-intentioned accessibility policies work to erase them.
Where that row of regular seats is raised or lowered, disabled patrons either hunch below or tower over their fellow audience members, seated at an odd remove from the people with whom they’ve come to share some sort of viewing experience.
That’s bad enough when it comes to sitting with strangers, but as my Arrival experience shows, “companion seating” – the antiseptic official term for where your friends and loved ones and support workers go – is even more fraught. You go to a movie to feel a part of something bigger than yourself but more often than not come out feeling small.
This is not to deny the effort that theatres have been putting into re-examining the experience of disabled patrons in recent years.
The Lightbox has an expansive row of integrated seating in its two largest screening rooms, where wheelchairs can park in front of smaller chairs with companions seated on either side. And Cineplex has committed itself to programs like Access 2, which provides complimentary theatre admission for a support person, as well as CaptiView and Fidelio, for closed captioning and described video respectively.
Cineplex director of communications Sarah Van Lange also points out that limitations in the layout and design of auditoriums like the one I was in at Yonge-Dundas are partly a quirk of the acquisition process: up until 2012, the theatre was owned and operated by AMC.
These barriers, both literal and figurative, almost certainly have less to do with bad intentions than with a lack of imagination. They’re the by-product of an inability to fully rethink the problem not of the wheelchair user but the outmoded movie theatre. Cinema design has evolved for gimmicks like D-Box and technological advances in projection but has otherwise stayed stubbornly the same.
Whatever the logic behind those limitations, the effect is isolating. Wheelchair users like myself buy tickets with the foreknowledge that our experience of a supposedly communal art will be made lonely, compromised by old design decisions we can’t even trace back to current management.
While innovations (or fads) like 4DX supposedly push theatres ahead toward a new kind of immersive experience, patrons in wheelchairs stay stranded in the aisle.
Angelo Muredda is a film critic for Cinema Scope Magazine and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, working on disability in Canadian fiction and film.