Accessibility must lead to inclusion and participation
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 16, 2014, Sunday
DO you remember cinemas of old?
Those were the days when discarded kuaci shells and other whatnots crackled under our feet as we gingerly made our way to the seats.
Our olfactory senses were often rudely assaulted by the malodorous cigarette fumes intermingling with the smell of urine seeping from the floor because some parents were too engrossed with the movie to take their child to the toilet.
The stench and trash aside, wheelchair users intending to watch a movie would have faced great difficulty. Entry into the hall was always hampered by a short flight of steps. We had to be carried in and then park ourselves in the aisle as there was neither space allocated for wheelchairs nor seats we could transfer to.
These were clear cases of inaccessibility and exclusion. No consideration was given to accommodate wheelchair users in any way. The inconvenience dissuaded me from going to the cinema for 20 years.
Accessibility in public infrastructure allows disabled people to live independently.
The physical environment and public transport system must be easy to use, seamless from point to point and free from obstacles and hazards.
Likewise, information and modes of communication have to be made available in different formats like Braille, soft copy and sign language to encompass the diverse needs and make-up of society.
However, accessibility is not the be-all and end-all of improving quality of life for disabled people. My following experience will illustrate this point.
My friends realising that I have not been into a cinema for the longest time suggested watching a movie while we were at a shopping mall one evening.
The ticket counter staff confirmed there was a space for a wheelchair inside the cinema. He further noted that the spaces were only available in selected halls.
Cinemas have come a long way since I was last in one.
Where they traditionally have a single screen showing one movie at a time, the advent of cineplexes has revolutionised the cinema-going experience with multiple screens showing different movies simultaneously.
With this development, the premises were also made more accessible. I could get into the hall without needing to be carried and finally had a proper place for parking my wheelchair. That was my first impression.
But a look at the seating plan showed that it was isolated from other seats and close to the screen. That meant I had to watch the movie separated from my friends and not given the choice to select where I wanted to sit, consequently decreasing the enjoyment of being with my friends as a group.
Watching movies is as much a social bonding activity as it is for entertainment. Since we wanted to sit together, they suggested I take a regular seat instead.
For that, they had to carefully manoeuvre my wheelchair down two steps narrow steps where I then had to be transferred to the assigned seat. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the carpeted floor was clean and the air pleasant despite the inconveniences.
Inclusion is the process of accommodating all people regardless of race, age, gender, impairments and other characteristics without restriction of any kind so that they can participate in an activity if they so wish.
Although accessible to a certain extent, the cinema failed to look into the aspects of inclusion. The segregation of wheelchair users would have deprived me of opportunities to interact with my friends while watching the movie if they had not taken the trouble to assist me.
It would be better if the cinema could allocate space for wheelchairs next to regular seats for us to sit beside our companions. A simple adjustment like this can make a lot of difference to the enjoyment of the shows.
Cinemas should not stop only at accommodating wheelchair users. It must be extended to people with other impairments as well.
Subtitles are crucial for deaf people to follow the story in movies. Fortunately, movies playing in local cinemas display subtitles; not specifically for the benefit of deaf people but it serves the purpose nonetheless.
On the other hand, the quality of subtitles leaves much to be desired. More should be done to improve the accuracy of the translations to give a better context of the happenings on the screen.
As far as I am aware, no cinema in Malaysia has audio description as an option. Audio description is a feature providing voice narration describing the actions, facial expressions and goings-on in non-verbal scenes and is streamed via wireless headsets.
Local cinemas have to seriously look into incorporating this option as it will greatly enhance the movie experience for people with visual impairments, especially in parts where there is little or no dialogue.
Having said that, I stopped going to cinemas again four years ago. I like the vantage from the last row and buy my tickets online. The ushers at the cinemas always insisted that I occupy the wheelchair space and my wife sit at the back even though I informed them I could transfer to the seat I had paid for.
After the umpteenth time of having to explain at length why I refused to be seated separately from my wife, I decided it was not worth the effort and have our weekend spoiled by the recurring episodes of frustrations.
These situations in cinemas are just one facet of the many problems disabled people have to contend with. Facilities, activities and services in schools, workplaces, parks and places of worship all have issues that require similar attention.
Most importantly, there is a need to move away from the traditional notion that accessibility is the sole goal to be achieved to make it convenient for disabled people.
The implementation of policies on accessibility need to lead to inclusion. Otherwise, it is just work half done. Ultimately, inclusion must culminate in participation in civil, social, economic, cultural, religious and political spheres.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises that full participation in these spheres will result in the enhanced sense of belonging and bring about significant advances in the human, social and economic development of society.
Therefore in the structuring and delivery of accessibility, decision makers need to think with the end in mind that the objective is full participation. Disability rights advocates have to fully internalise this three-stage train of thought and then drive home the point to them.
When these decision makers are able to attain that level of reasoning and put it into practice, we can rest assured they have become powerful allies and the interests of disabled people in this matter will be well taken care of.
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