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For the Disabled, VOD Means Finally Seeing First-Run Movies When Everyone Does

Going to a movie theater as a disabled person is a lot tougher than most people realize.

A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask due to COVID-19 concerns walks by a shuttered movie theater in New York. Movie theaters may be closed, but friends are still finding ways to watch together while staying apart thanks to applications like Netflix PartyVirus Outbreak-Film-Virtual Viewing Parties, New York, United States - 21 Mar 2020

A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks by a shuttered movie theater in New York

John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

If you’re a movie fan, you might wonder when theaters will open, or how they will keep patrons safe. If you’re a disabled movie fan, your question may be very different — namely: Now that I finally can see first-run movies with everyone else, am I going to lose that privilege?

The experience of going to a movie theater as a disabled person can be terrific, or it can range somewhere between disheartening and demeaning, with issues that include malfunctioning closed-caption equipment, wheelchair seating occupied by strollers, and half-hearted attempts at retrofitting to meet the terms of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

When theaters closed and movies began showing up on VOD, it inspired a lot of debate over things like breaking theatrical windows and if it meant the end of the theatrical experience. For a disabled person, it meant: We can see movies at the same time as our friends.

While exhibitors love to preach the sanctity of the communal experience, that belief system often seems to neglect the fact that a portion of that community — 15 percent of the world’s population, to be exact — can’t participate. Those with disabilities who can’t visit a theater are often left to wait at least three months to see a movie. And when you’re already treated differently, any distance from normalcy takes on added significance. It’s understandable why people on social media mourn the loss of theaters, but imagine if you were never able to see a movie in a theater in the first place.

Grace Lapointe, a Massachusetts author with cerebral palsy, has taken in several of the features premiering on premium VOD, including “Birds of Prey” and “Emma.” In an interview with IndieWire, she said she hadn’t been to a theater in nearly three years due to issues with the volume and her inability to navigate in the darkness. Seeing a movie via VOD “is great,” she says. “[I] can discuss movies with friends without worrying about spoilers.”

"Birds of Prey"

“Birds of Prey”

Warner Bros.

When it comes to movie theater accessibility, there are a lot of moving parts. The ADA gives theaters the option to provide the bare minimum to stay compliant, putting the law above inclusivity. As many theaters transition to reserved seating and/or reclining chairs, wheelchair seating has been drastically scaled back, often with just one to four seats left for those with disabilities. However, the rise of lounge-style seating has inadvertently created aisles wide enough to navigate a wheelchair and makes more seats accessible — if there are no stairs, at least.

For “Watch With Jen” podcaster Jen Johans, scoliosis means stairs and theater seats are nonstarters. She’s been happy to take in several independent features released to premium VOD in the last three months, including Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” but she still prefers the chance to see films on the big screen.

“Film is a communal experience,” she said. “VOD is not a replacement in my eyes. It’s an enhancement and, sadly, we are going to have an even higher number of disabled individuals who would otherwise be left out of the film-going equation if it says as it is.”

Texas resident Valerie Frederick has arthrogryposis and agrees with criticisms from other disabled movie theater patrons about the lack of accessibility, though it’s not something she, as a wheelchair user herself, has experienced personally. Even so, theaters remain her first choice for movie-going; she said she finds few benefits in same-day VOD. She’s committed to supporting the theatrical experience, even if that seems like a “betrayal to the disability community I’m a part of.”

However, Frederick shared the view of all other disabled people interviewed for this article: They don’t feel comfortable returning to a theater unless there’s a vaccine or other immunities.

Of course, same-day VOD stands to benefit many groups that find their access limited by circumstances beyond their control, including working parents and those living in more rural areas. And many disabled people hope that the VOD choice can remain even when theaters reopen.

But there are many disabled individuals who want this to be a choice, more than anything else and they fear it will be ignored in a rush to return to normal. Lapointe says she’d love to see premium VOD continue like this after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. “Instead of considering this a temporary, emergency measure, studios should use the pandemic as an opportunity to improve their accessibility,” she said.

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