How are cinemas providing for additional needs?

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A round-up of the ways that UK cinemas are trying to extend accessibility.

The phrase ‘additional needs’ can and does cover a whole spectrum of different specifications. In short, to make sure that watching a film remains an accessible experience for everyone, cinemas are increasingly adapting both their physical spaces and the training given to their staff to keep up to ensure that is so. Of course, there will always be the argument that cinemas could do more, and quite rightly cinemas are constantly shifting and re-evaluating what needs to be done. But here’s an overview of the ways cinemas are trying to ensure the movies can be enjoyed by everybody – and we’re keen to hear your own experiences in the comments.

Wheelchair and Restricted Mobility Access

This is one aspect of going to the cinema that has improved drastically in recent years, with information now far more easily available online. For instance, Odeon claims that “where only some screens at a cinema are accessible by guests with restricted mobility, the cinema teams will rotate screenings so that most films will show in an accessible screen at some point in their engagement at the cinema”. In addition to this it has a feature that allows the user to filter performances at their local cinema by wheelchair accessibility.

Cineworld meanwhile is committed to making their cinemas as accessible as possible. Currently, its sites in Harrow, London Fulham Road and London Leicester Square are listed as having “less than full wheelchair access”. Vue’s website states that most of its cinemas are wheelchair accessible, as do most independent cinemas. Direct contact details tend to be provided to discuss specific requirements.

While cinemas claim to be providing better access, what is not always quite so clear cut is the experience of watching the film itself. Though many wheelchair spaces are at the back, many wheelchair users are forced to use spaces that are at the very front of the screen. While every cinemagoer’s preferences are different, when you don’t have any choice in the matter it is an issue that needs looking into.

CEA Card

One of the biggest breakthroughs in terms of accessibility is the CEA Card.

The Cinema Exhibitors Association, now known as the UK Cinema Association, is a scheme that enables a disabled patron to claim a complimentary ticket for someone to accompany them to screenings. Approximately 90% of cinemas accept the card, which you can apply for here. The card costs £6 and you need a photograph and proof of eligibility to apply.

You can search for your local cinema that accepts the card right here.

Autism Friendly Screenings

These screenings are relatively new and are therefore not implemented in as many cinemas as some other schemes. Odeon is by far the most detailed in its description of the screenings, describing them as “being sensory friendly, with subtle changes to the cinema environment. The lights are kept at a lower level, lower than usual sound levels, no trailers or advertisements – just the film and allowance for increased levels of movement and noise”.

Odeon dedicates one Sunday morning a month to them, but in 90 of its 120 sites, whereas Vue put its screenings on the last Sunday of the month in all sites except the West End, setting their tickets at £2.49. Picturehouse too sets its prices at £2.49 and has a dedicated page about the screenings.

These screenings are run with Autism charity Dimensions. It’s an organisation that’s partnered with Odeon, Vue, Cineworld, Everyman, Picturehouse and Showcase to ensure there is at least one screening a month. Its website houses a map where you can find your nearest screening, and you can find that here.

Note that Autism-friendly screening are not exactly the same as relaxed screenings, that are currently being trialled in a handful of independent cinemas around the UK (although they are quite similar). Cinemas such as the Bristol Watershed and BFI Southbank in London are testing such screenings, which involve modifying the environment to be more welcoming and accessible to people on the spectrum, with dementia, or are neuro-diverse.

Dementia Friendly Screenings

Another recent addition, Picturehouse has taken the lead here, so far being the only chain offering regular dementia friendly screenings, offering a reduced rate of £4 plus free tickets to carers, as well as a selection of new releases and older films. Cineworld appears to be the only other chain making these screenings a regular occurrence. As we hear of more, we’ll update this article.

Restricted Sight and Hearing

For those with either restricted sight or hearing, most cinemas are equipped with a hearing loop for those with hearing aids or offer subtitled performances. A criticism often levelled at these screenings are that either they are not programmed often enough, or that when they are shown it is at an awkward time of the day. Cineworld also offers a TypeTalk service for telephone booking.

Odeon meanwhile offers InfraRed headsets as well as the ability to filter subtitled screenings. Cineworld does however state that “if you need to use a headset you may be asked to leave a credit card or other form of ID while the set is being used”.

Vue doesn’t offer headsets but does mark ST for subtitled screenings and AD for Audio Description. Over 300 cinemas nationwide have AD technology installed, and although sadly many smaller or independent cinemas don’t currently, it is hoped that in time it will be a regular feature everywhere.

Vue, Cineworld and Odeon all explicitly state that guide and assistance dogs are welcome in all of their cinemas.

The brilliant website Your Local Cinema can be used to search for local subtitled and audio described screenings by film and also has a chat feature if you need more information or extra help.

Parent and Baby Screenings

Parent and Baby Screenings have become much more popular in recent years. These are similar to weekend Kids Club Screenings, except these are general releases not just restricted to children’s films. Parents can be safe in the knowledge that the lights will be up and the sound turned down. Typically shown early to mid-morning, it enables parents to see films without worrying about causing a disturbance to other patrons, as well as working as a social hub for the community. Odeon calls its strand Newbies, whilst the Cineworld equivalent is Cinebabies. Times and days vary by location. Vue however did a trial of the scheme but did not deem it successful enough to carry on.

As an aside, the films shown at such screenings have to get a special exemption from the BBFC. Many of the films are 15 certificate, and technically, the newborns attending are thus under the age for the film, and by the letter of the law the cinema could get in trouble for admitting them. That’s where the BBFC steps in and allows the exemptions!

Senior Screenings

Hugely popular, these. Senior screenings have been booming in recent years. While there are no strict policies to enforce this, as technically anybody is allowed to go along, they are screenings where older people can get a discounted ticket, usually to a film that came out a few months previously. They tend to be mid-week and during the day, whilst many of the cinemas also include a tea or coffee and a biscuit in the ticket price. The idea too is to combat loneliness and isolation, as well as allowing those who perhaps couldn’t afford a full price ticket to still enjoy a film a week. Most chains offer some variant of these.

It’s clear that a lot of things that need to adapt and change, yet cinemas have made a lot of headway in the care and understanding of what different audiences require and hopefully in time that will only get better. We’ll keep updating this article to reflect that.

Lead image: Big Stock

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