Theater chain finds ways to make more movies accessible to everyone

Amy Wood considers the “Sensory Showtimes” at Celebration Cinema North a godsend. There, Wood and her children, Ellery and Aidan, can take in a movie without the stress they’ll be judged.

Aidan, 15, has intellectual and developmental disabilities. Attending a “regular” movie would prove overwhelming for him.

But at Celebration Cinema’s Sensory Showtimes, the houselights are turned down, the volume is adjusted so it’s not as loud, and open captioning (which is always in view) is provided.

Films with sequences of flashing or flickering lights are not included, however, due to the potential to induce seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy. 

People with disabilities are allowed to roam the theater while a movie is playing (there’s been dancing as well) and are not ordered to sit down.

Each of Celebration’s indoor theaters also has convenient dedicated space for those who use wheelchairs.

A place to feel comfortable

There are no stern, judgmental stares to be concerned about.

“There’s always someplace that we don’t feel comfortable, we don’t feel included, and this is one of those (places) where we do,” says Wood. “We encourage family members to be themselves. They’re not going to be judged or shushed.”

Wood also appreciates that Celebration Cinema North has a family bathroom.

“It’s a huge feature,” she says. “My son has conditions that require some extra help, and knowing there’s one close by eases my anxiety so much.”

Wood appreciates the Sensory Showtimes so much that, years ago, she became a volunteer host, where she greets patrons and asks first-timers who may be unsure which theater to go to if they’re here to attend a sensory show.

“Part of the reasons I began volunteering was because I had someone show me the inclusivity of the Sensory Showtimes,” says Wood. “It’s nice to see someone with a sign and to be greeted. New coming families sometimes aren’t sure what Sensory Showtimes are, and I give them the lowdown on that.”

Collaborative offerings

The sensory movie offerings are a collaboration between Celebration Cinema and the Family Hope Foundation, a Jenison-based nonprofit that provides resources, activities, support, and funding for therapies to families of children with disabilities in West Michigan.

For many parents with special needs children, going out together is not always
an option. Sensory Showtimes make that possible, says Jane Eppard, executive
director of Family Hope.

“You can never underestimate the power of fun,” says Eppard, adding there are four Celebration Cinema locations that offer Sensory Showtimes. “They allow families to experience fun. Movies are a great pastime to see in the theater without the stress. It’s a really special gift to families. Not only do I think it strengthens them because, too often, (they) will divide and conquer: One will stay home while the other goes out, and this offers a little something for everyone.”

Celebration staff is trained to assist families who have members with disabilities, says Emily Loeks, director of public relations and community affairs for Celebration Cinema.

“We create space that is a positive encounter, so we do a lot with celebrated service training with all of our frontline staff in efforts to provide a great welcome,” says Loeks.

Heated sidewalks

Celebration Cinema’s latest development, Studio Park in downtown Grand Rapids, provides heated sidewalks to make it easier for people using strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs to navigate to their theaters, restaurants, parking lot, and the Listening Room, where small-venue concerts are held.

Open captioning is offered in its indoor multiplex theaters that allow patrons to enjoy their films with text and sound descriptions displayed onscreen. Assisted listening devices are available for most showtimes, which amplify the audio for the listener.

“We also provide closed captioning for every movie, so every time a patron needs captioning, we do have handheld devices that go in the cupholder for (them) to use,” says Loeks.

Rooted in dignity, community

Celebration Cinema’s core strategy for doing business is rooted in dignity and making a broader connection with the public it serves.

“It’s our community. We live here, we have relationships here,” says Loeks. “In some modest way, I feel like these encounters with stories (movies) and each other are something that makes our community richer. It allows us to see and understand each other and experience each other’s gifts.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.