Access to a better view

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Disabled teacher Lois Keith recounts the frustration of an outing to the cinema. We stayed in the country over half term but during the week I decided to take my daughters and their friend to see the film of Jane Eyre which was showing in the nearest town. In addition to my part time teaching, I am writing a book on classic children's fiction and one of my daughters is reading Jane Eyre at school. So far, so simple.

The cinema is actually a community hall run as a film club and when we arrived there were still plenty of seats available. But the pleasant looking young man on the door refused to sell us tickets. I had the money, indeed I was holding the money out to him, so what was the problem?

He wouldn't sell me a ticket because I am disabled, I use a wheelchair and they'd already sold the one allocated wheelchair space. This kind of thing has happened to me before, but it never fails to shock. For the first three-quarters of my life (so far), if I turned up to a cinema and there were seats available and I had the money, they let me in. Now their ability to turn me away, and their sense of self-righteousness in doing so, still goes straight to my heart. Anguish often precedes anger in these situations.

Last week, however, I went into a different mode. Fiction often being more powerful than reality, I became a character in my own novel. In this book a 15-year-old girl becomes disabled and is refused re-entry to her school on the grounds that she is now a safety hazard. With her friends, she mounts a campaign. Their slogan is "Use Your Imagination. This is Libby's School Too."

So I found myself saying: "That's ridiculous. I don't believe you can't find a space for me in there. You'll just have to use your imagination." A second man in a red sweatshirt appeared and told me it was impossible. There was only one space for a wheelchair and it was already sold. I explained calmly (very calmly for me) that they would have to find a way because I wasn't going to leave.

By now the lobby was crammed with people queuing for tickets. I said that they couldn't plead fire regulations because I knew there was level access throughout and good exit routes. I also knew that the seating was flexible - they move chairs in and out for shows. It wasn't that they were allowed to admit only one wheelchair user, it was that they thought one was enough.

The manager was called and I repeated my position. The crowd behind us was silent but experience told me I couldn't assume this implied support. It was much more likely to be embarrassment. The manager went to have another look and returned saying the only way she could let me in would be to remove three seats. "Fine," I said, pulling cash out of my bag. "If that's the only way, I'll pay for them all." This wasn't the response she'd anticipated and told me she couldn't allow me to do this because it wouldn't be fair. Fair to whom? Fair to the people waiting in the queue.

I stopped being Libby and became Cleo, the really strong character in the book, the one who isn't afraid of anyone. I turned to the crowd, 70 or 80 people by now, who were shifting about uneasily. "Well just ask them," I said. "And see if they think it's fair that I'm not allowed to buy a ticket." Even as I said it, I knew I was being wildly over-optimistic. Most people didn't give a toss about whether I got in or not, they just cared about getting in themselves.

We were in a stalemate. They wouldn't sell me tickets and no-one else could buy one. A woman near the back suggested they sold them to me and "moved me out of the way" while they sorted it out. Another asked if she would miss the start of the film. One of my daughters was visibly upset, her friend put her arm round her.

Interestingly for me as a feminist, my only vocal supporter was male. He asked if he could help transfer me into a seat but the seats are folding ones and too unstable for me. He suggested that I could sit at the front and he wouldn't mind sitting behind me. (I'm 5ft 2in. Even with the differences in height between a wheelchair and a cinema set, this only makes me the same as someone 5ft 6in). The manager went and had another look, came back and sold me the tickets.

I sat in the corner of the front row and disturbed no-one. It was a good film and when I cried, I could pretend it was about the ill-treatment of Jane. And did I win? Well, in the sense that we saw the film, I suppose I did. But in the sense of changing people's views, of making people see that it's not about favours to an individual, it's about civil rights, I'm pretty sure I failed. After all, they'd only found a solution to the problem when a non-disabled man told them there had to be a way.

When my daughters went to buy their chocs, they heard the manager say to anyone who would listen, "Dear, dear, I'm sure I've broken every safety rule here", and one young woman reply, "I know, it's terrible the way they always make us feel like we're the ones who are evil."

Usually I try to avoid something like this happening. It's why disabled people join in groups such as DAN (Disability Action Network) and do things like hand-cuff themselves to buses or cause obstructions outside buildings. When the Disability Discrimination Act comes into force next year, I may be able to sue the cinema. But in the Act, rights of access do not apply where existing physical barriers exist or if the institution or employers can argue that inclusion may create "safety problems". There will be no legal protection against discrimination in education and no Disability Rights Commission to protect or support us. We will continue to need support from our non-disabled allies in both public and private situations. Doing it alone is painful.

Lois Keith teaches at North Westminster Community School, London. She is the editor of Mustn't Grumble, Writing by Disabled Women (The Women's Press), winner of the MIND Book of the Year award. Her novel for teenagers, A Different Life will be published by The Women's Press next spring.

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