I’m relatively new to asking for audio description at the cinema. But I’m still used to one of two things happening.
The first possibility is that there is some technical problem. This has often happened to me at the new cinema called HOME – I saw several films there when it was new, and while the audio description system still had some bugs in it then, the staff were very apologetic, very clear on how unacceptable this is, and they offered my husband and I refunds and free tickets to make up for the unfairly inferior cinemagoing experience I was getting.
The second is friendly competence, which tends to happen at the Cineworld my husband and I most often go to. The staff sometimes even anticipate I will want audio description when they notice my white cane. They provide the headset, make sure we know where the switches are, suggest the places to sit in the cinema that get the best reception, and in general help me feel really well looked-after. (This branch we usually go to is in Stockport, but I’ve also often been to the Cineworld in Bradford and they’re just as reliable and friendly and I’ve heard good things about this chain from people in other parts of the country.)
But recently when showtimes at Cineworld didn’t suit us, my husband and I decided to go to the AMC in Manchester. We were going to see Ghostbusters, which I was so excited to see because many of my friends had already seen it and were talking about how great it was.
When the film started, I realized my headset was set up for hearing-impaired rather than visually-impaired people. It took my husband two trips back and forth before he found the problem, by speaking to a projectionist who said, “Oh, we don’t bother with audio description. No one ever asks for it.”
My husband had to come back to the already-in-progress film and tell me this. I was so disappointed and frustrated that a few tears rolled down my cheeks. Not only was it an infuriating response to something I had just asked for, it also meant that I had no hope of enjoying this film I’d been so looking forward to, so desperate to see.
We complained to a manager and were offered free tickets and vouchers for popcorn, but the manager didn’t seem to understand what the problem really was. I wasn’t after freebies, I wanted assurance that this wouldn’t happen any more, to me or anyone else asking for audio description at that cinema (while AMC is a chain, it seems Manchester is their only UK location these days, so while I’d like to think I had the potential to help people in lots of places, it turns out I had to limit my ambitions to just Manchester!).
By the way, I did get to see Ghostbusters at Cineworld soon after, and I loved it. It really was as great as my friends had led me to believe.
A month later, when a friend was staying with my husband and me, we decided to use the free passes to go back to AMC and see another film, bracing ourselves for the possibility that the audio description situation would probably not be any better. We happened to choose a film I had already seen so I didn’t think I was too bothered about it.
This time when we asked for audio description, it seemed to cause a lot of trouble and confusion. People muttered into radios, appeared, disappeared, kept asking us questions about what film we were there to see… Eventually four people and a clipboard converged to give us an answer: “it’s not advertised as being audio described! Not in 2D! It’s audio described in Screen 11, in 3D, but not Screen 12 in 2D which is what you have tickets for.”
I try to be polite but I couldn’t help laughing at this. I can’t watch 3D films – because of my visual impairment! I don’t see the things properly and I very quickly end up with a migraine. Offering an accommodation for visually impaired people only in a format even less accessible to us – and although some people’s sight loss might mean they’re not bothered about 3D they’re still paying more for the tickets, and sighted companions would have to pay extra for the 3D glasses too, which is hardly fair.
I didn’t think I’d mind missing out on this film too much since I’d already seen this film, but sitting in the cinema between my friend and my husband, I was all too aware that I was having a very different experience from them even though I was right there with them.
My husband, my friend and I all contacted the cinema via social media afterward. We also talked about it on our blogs and Tumblrs. AMC contacted us with offers of a free screening of the film – we weren’t interested when we’d already paid to see it, and again I worried they were misunderstanding the problem: this wasn’t an individual customer service issue, it was a failure to provide reasonable adjustments for anyone. I didn’t want special treatment, I just wanted to be sure everyone would get good treatment.
But then I got a message saying “We can also confirm that we have employed a specialist contractor who will begin installing audio description equipment across all our screens from next week.”
Once I knew they were making audio description available to anyone watching any movie, I was much happier. And when they then repeated the offer of a private free screening for my friends and family – this time saying I could choose the film – I couldn’t resist.
Of course I chose Ghostbusters.
So that a Friday evening, about fifteen friends, family and I saw Ghostbusters in a showing just for us on one of the AMC’s smaller screens. The manager who was looking after us told me that at that point all but one of their sixteeen screens could offer audio description, and that they were working on that last one. It was a huge change from only ten days earlier, when we were told only four screens were equipped for audio description.
Sitting in a cinema amidst many of the people I love best, getting to share something special was a surprisingly emotional experience for me. The film started as soon as we told them we were ready (once everyone had got their drinks and snacks, been to the loo, figured out where they wanted to sit…you’d have thought we were a bunch of kids!), no ads or trailers or anything. Friends of mine with a tiny baby who aren’t usually able to go out were able to join me because they knew they could bring the baby and even if she cried the cinema was full of friendly people who wouldn’t mind (as it turned out, the baby was well-behaved all through the movie, and even had noise-cancelling headphones herself so there was no worry of injuring her hearing with the loud noises!). This seems just another kind of accommodation to me, and a chance I was glad to be able to provide them. We were even able to arrange this while our visiting friend was still up north on her holidays so she could join us for the reward she had helped get, by helping call the cinema to account on social media.
All of these things added up to a unique experience that I really treasure, even as I still would rather the audio description just worked properly in the first place.
But such a happy ending reminds me why I bother complaining about lack of access at all. Like many disabled people, I could spend all my time highlighting poor service, or unacceptable standards if I had the energy for it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Most of the time nothing much happens, and I know the problem would still be there again if I tried to do the same thing. It can be easy to get disheartened and to not think it’s worth bothering to say anything. I hope the occasional success stories like this help keep us all going.
So if you’re in Manchester, try AMC! The audio description worked fine for me, and I hope people make use of it.