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We Need to Stop Asking Kids With Disabilities and Their Families to Leave Movie Theaters

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty’s Parenting Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

On April 12, Jennifer Daly took her two boys to the 7:30 p.m. showing of “Dumbo” at the AMC movie theater in Lake in the Hills, Illinois. Daly planned ahead to make the experience enjoyable for her youngest son, who is 3 years old and has a disability.

Daly made sure they were high up in the theater where her son could access the screen due to his limited head mobility. Daly even selected a spot to the side so his medical equipment wasn’t in anyone’s way. Yet halfway through the film, a manager approached Daly and asked the family to leave due to complaints of a baby crying.

Daly said her son was not crying, he was laughing at the funny parts in the movie. Although she explained this to the manager, she was told the theater has a strict policy about noise complaints.

“I got kicked out of ‘Dumbo,’” Daly told The Mighty, “A movie about an elephant who is ostracized and not accepted because he is different.”

Situations like this, unfortunately, happen more often than people may realize. When a family that has a child with a disability goes to the movies they are no different than any other family out to have a good time. However, unlike other families, families that have kids with disabilities are often treated differently — from being asked to leave the theater to being refused accommodations.

“You are kicking me out of the movie because someone doesn’t understand how my son laughs,” Daly told the manager.

The manager tried to rectify the situation by offering them tickets to a different movie. Daly declined, asking if they would be kicked out of the other film if her son laughed. The manager said they could finish watching “Dumbo” if they sat in the front of the theater. However, the seats were in a spot that didn’t accommodate Daly’s son’s needs, and the family had already missed 20 minutes of the film. The manager offered movie vouchers for Saturday morning, but the option did not work with the Daly family’s schedule.

Daly said the manager could have approached the situation quite different. To her knowledge, the manager did not take the time to observe what the complaint was about. “I think she reacted because of the disturbance call and asked me to leave. But they never gave me a warning,” Daly said, adding that no one in the audience complained to her.

Daly posted a Facebook message to AMC the following day and received a reply from an AMC representative, who said the company’s team would review her case.

Daly hopes their situation creates some needed change in staff training. “I want their staff to know how to evaluate a situation and working with different customers,” she said.

The Daly family’s experience is one of many. Kids with disabilities and their families are frequently discriminated against because they look or act differently than able-bodied children. And different behaviors are often seen as a child being “naughty” or “undisciplined.”

In 2014, Emily Colson and her son, Max, were forced out of a movie theater by audience members who hurled insults at her and her son.

When the previews before the film began, Max was startled by the change in noise level and screamed, “I want to go home!” A woman rudely asked Colson to quiet her son, saying she knew he was autistic, “But why should the rest of us have to suffer.”

Colson wrote:

It was applause for our exit. It was the sound of an angry mob chasing us away with their jeers and taunts.

“And don’t come back,” I heard as we slowly made our way down the stairs in the dark.

As we neared the exit, passing center stage, I heard a voice from the back of the theater. It was a man shouting over the thunder of the crowd like a crack of lightening.

“He’s retarded.”

I lost all bearings.

Society needs to be more understanding and accepting of people’s differences. But families also need more options for safe and inclusive excursions. We need more accessible events that work for our kids. We need accommodations that work for our kids that aren’t just publicity stunts for companies.

There are some theaters that offer sensory-friendly experiences. AMC is known for its “Sensory Friendly Films,” designated showings where the lights are turned up, the sound is turned down and singing, dancing and moving around is OK. While its site publicizes that sensory films are available on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month and Tuesday nights, each AMC theater runs its own schedule and not all AMC theaters offer these options.

Daly was told she should have taken her son to a sensory friendly film, but her local AMC only offers films one Sunday morning per month. Her son doesn’t need a sensory-friendly environment, he is perfectly fine in a regular viewing, she said. The problem was that someone did not like how he laughed.

The problem is that we still see children with disabilities as not belonging. There are people who feel uncomfortable with disability and sadly, their ignorance is projected onto our families. Daly’s son was laughing, there was absolutely no reason for him to leave the movie. Sometimes my daughter, who has Down syndrome, cheers and claps during a movie (at very appropriate times), so what if someone is bothered by the way she enjoys the movie?

People talk differently, they move differently, they laugh differently. Different is not wrong. Different is not unacceptable. Different is just different. Everyone belongs.

If a family goes to the movies, chances are they know their child can tolerate the experience. Any unusual vocalization may be a momentary transition. Or maybe the child is laughing, and they just make sounds that others are not used to. That is not “noise,” it is laughter. Kids should laugh at a movie with funny parts in it, that’s the point.

The Mighty reached out to AMC for a statement and has yet to hear back.

Originally published: April 25, 2019
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