Everyday Advocacy: Accessible Theater Seating

Michael_CollinsQ. We have a luxury movie theater in town that has plush seats, like easy chairs, and you can order food and beverages of all types during the show. When I called to make reservations for a movie, I was told that if we purchased general admission seating, I would be able to get my wheelchair next to a seat in order to transfer into it. The seat was not cheap, as it cost in excess of $20 — as compared to $40 for the premium seating. The representative also confirmed that a ramp would allow me to reach that seat.

Once my two companions and I arrived, we found that we had to use the stairs to reach any of the non-premium seats. There was a ramp on one side of the theater, but between the ramp and the seats there are stairs. On the other side there are only stairs. My sister had to bump my wheelchair down the stairs. My friend was able to pick me up and put me in the seat, but he had to leave early, so I had a difficult time getting back into my wheelchair after the movie. It was dangerous.          


I spoke with the general manager after the film. He told me that they sold out of all of the premium seats, which are where the wheelchair seating is located. There were plenty of available seats in the general admission seating, but nothing that could be reached using a wheelchair. He said that there is one premium seat that can be removed where a wheelchair can sit. But the theater policy makes it impossible to sit there with companions unless they all purchased the premium seats in advance.


The manager then said they might be able to make one of the premium seats a permanent seat for people with disabilities, but this does not eliminate the problem. He offered me a refund and passes to come back to sit in the premium seats, but I would not be able to use those seats safely on my own. I would like to see that this theater complies with ADA requirements like other theaters have, as it is fairly new. What can I do next to see that it happens?

—  Movie Buff

A. The new Americans with Disabilities Act 2010 Standards for Accessible Design includes some specific requirements for accessible theater seating. No seat is accessible if it requires the navigation of stairs to reach it. That one “accessible seat” in the theater you attended also needs to be removable, in case you would prefer to remain seated in your wheelchair instead of transferring.

Since you made reservations in advance and requested wheelchair seating, the theater had an obligation to hold that space available for you and not sell it to someone else who was not disabled, even at a premium price. An exception would be if the entire section of premium seats had been sold out prior to the time you made your reservation. The theater manager was also wrong when it comes to seating for your companions. If that was the only space where you could be seated, you are entitled to bring up to three companions with you and they must be seated adjacent to you. Since you had requested general admission seats, and there was no wheelchair seating in that section, your tickets should all have been sold at that lower price.

You did the right thing by discussing the situation with the manager immediately when it happened. However, there are steps that need to be taken that likely won’t happen without further enforcement action. Besides educating all staff, including reservation agents, about the ADA seating requirements, some architectural modifications may be necessary to make it possible to be seated in a wheelchair in multiple locations. From follow-up contact with you, I know that you have sent a letter of complaint to your state’s Human Rights Commission. The Commission has the option of reviewing this incident from the perspective of a possible ADA violation, a violation of the state’s anti-discrimination statutes or even state building codes.

If you are not satisfied with the response from the state commission, you can  engage an ADA attorney and file a lawsuit or send a complaint to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Resources
• The ADA National Network, Disability Law Handbook — adata.org/lawhandbook?utm_source=ADA+Handbook+Updated+Available&utm_campaign=DLH&utm_medium=email
• U.S. Dept of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, How To File A Title III Complaint — www.ada.gov/t3compfm.htm

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