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Maria Town’s Comments at the 1/8 Press Conference in Solidarity with Rev. Barber

by | Jan 12, 2024 | Blog

Just last month, in late December, civil rights leader Bishop William Barber II (Rev. Barber) experienced a discriminatory and unacceptable incident at an AMC theater in Greenville, N.C. Due to his disability, he had brought his own chair to the theater. Theater employees told Bishop Barber that bringing a specialized chair into the accessible seating section was not permitted. Ultimately, the incident escalated to involve law enforcement, and theater staff called the police to escort Re ET v. Dr. Barber out of the theater.

It is deeply concerning to see a request for accommodation and access become so confrontational. It is, however, not surprising as people with disabilities are more likely to experience interactions with police because they are perceived as being noncompliant. This is especially true for Black disabled people like Bishop Barber, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination by places of public accommodations, including movie theaters. No one should be criminalized for trying to get their access needs met.

On January 8th, Bishop Barber hosted a press conference and invited Maria Town, AAPD’s President and CEO to speak. Her full remarks …

Maria’s comments:

Thank you, Bishop Barber, for asking me to be here today. My name is Maria Town. My pronouns are she/her. For access purposes, I will provide a visual description. I am a white woman with long brown hair and I serve as the President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. AAPD is a national disability-led, cross disability civil rights organization, and through our programming and policy work, we seek to increase the political and economic power of the more than 60 million people with disabilities across the United States.

Disabled people have fought for centuries for the right to exist in public safely and freely. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was a major victory in our continued struggle for inclusion, equity, and justice. Despite this transformative civil rights law being over thirty years old, disabled people still regularly encounter discrimination and barriers that prevent our participation in public life, employment, education, and more. In addition to non compliance, there are entities that aren’t required to comply with the ADA at all. Like this church where this press conference is taking place. All too often when we as disabled people assert our decades old civil rights to exist in public we are made to feel grateful for even the slightest bit of access, we are shamed, for taking up space and made to feel like burdens, and we are criminalized.

When I learned about what happened to Bishop Barber when he tried to take his 90 year old mother to see The Color Purple, I was reminded of the frequent experiences of deaf, hard of hearing, and blind people who go to the movies only to find out that the captioning or audio description devices are not working and theater staff do not know how to fix the equipment.

I was reminded of this past July when Senator Tammy Duckworth could not see the Barbie movie with her daughters because there was no publicly available information about the theater’s sole elevator being out of order before she bought her tickets. Dressed in her best Barbie pink outfit, Senator Duckworth had to sit outside while her daughters saw the movie.

When I heard about Bishop Barber’s experience, specifically the escalation to police involvement, I was relieved he came away alive and physically uninjured because I was reminded of Ethan Saylor. Ethan Saylor was a 26-year old man with Down syndrome who routinely went to the movies with his personal care attendant. In January of 2013, Ethan went to see Zero Dark Thirty. He never came home. After the movie ended, while his caregiver pulled the car around, Ethan went back into the theater to see the movie again. He had not purchased another ticket. The theater manager informed Ethan that he would have to purchase a second ticket or leave. As a result of his intellectual disability, Ethan did not understand or handle money. He returned to “his” seat in the theater and sat quietly. At this point, the theater manager contacted security. The guards who appeared were two off duty sheriff’s deputies working side jobs as mall security. Ethan’s caregiver tried to explain to officers that Ethan had Down Syndrome and asked them not to touch him. She asked to go to Ethan to help diffuse the situation, but she was not allowed. The officers forcibly removed Ethan from his seat and wrestled him to the ground. Witnesses reported Ethan used some of his final breaths to shout “Mommy! It hurts!” Before everything went silent. During the interaction with the deputies, Ethan’s larynx was fractured, and his death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

Had the theater staff and the sheriff’s deputies treated Ethan and his aide with dignity, he might still be alive today, and his family and community would not continue to grieve the loss of a beloved son. Since Ethan’s death, there have been changes made to policing in the state of Maryland, improving training for first responders on how to respectfully interact with people with disabilities. This along with the greater awareness of the realities of police interactions with disabled people, makes me hopeful that something positive can come out of this situation.

In that spirit, I wanted to take this opportunity to share information about some of what the ADA requires when people with disabilities go to the movies.

  • Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. This includes movie theaters.
  • In 2010, the ADA standards and guidelines for accessible designs of auditoriums and theaters were updated to be more inclusive.
  • Movie goers with disabilities do not have to provide documentation of their disability to theaters in order to be accommodated.
    • Further, theaters may not ask for proof of disability or ask what an individual’s disability is. Theaters can ask if someone is purchasing tickets for someone with a mobility disability or someone who needs the particular accessible features of that seat.
  • Tickets for accessible seats must be available for purchase during the same times and in the same ways as the purchase of other tickets. You should not have to call a certain number during specific hours to purchase accessible tickets, when everyone else can go online and purchase tickets whenever they want.
  • Wheelchair spaces must be dispersed throughout all areas of the theater, so that disabled patrons can have the same choice of viewing angles as the general public. Mobility device using movie goers should not be segregated into one area of the theater.
    • Relatedly, there must be a companion seat next to designated wheelchair seating areas, and companion seats must be equivalent in quality to the other seats in the theater.
  • Theaters must have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed captioning and audio description when showing a digital film that is made available with these features. Theaters must provide public notice about the availability of these features for films and they must also ensure that staff are equipped to assist disabled patrons with the equipment before, during, and after the movie.
  • Theaters must also make a reasonable modification to their policies, practices, or procedures when making such a modification is necessary to create equal participation and access to a person with a disability, in this instance enjoying a film. Such reasonable modifications are not necessarily spelled out in official standards but are determined on an individual basis by individual theaters.

In the disability community, we know that it is only a matter of time until people become disabled. If you are lucky enough to live a good long life, you will become disabled. Even if you do not think this relates to you now, it will someday. I encourage everyone, people with disabilities, and those who have yet to become disabled, to learn more about the disability community, disability, and disability related civil rights so that we may all come together to create a more inclusive society that accepts people as they are at every stage of life.