Seeing the remake of “West Side Story” proved to be much harder than expected. I thought the focus of this post was going to be about excluding persons with disabilities (PWD). Instead, it turned out to be a story of the impact of lackadaisical business processes on everyone, including PWD. We finally saw the movie (it was very good) but not until after frustrating the patrons in the theater, the staff, the General Manager of the theater, and me. The worst thing – the problem had been thoroughly addressed years ago.
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In this post:
Story: All about those processes
We had been anticipating the re-make of the movie, “West Side Story” since learning about it in September 2019. The movie was being shown at the AMC Theater complex near our home. I only go to movie theaters that provide Descriptive Video Service (DVS). DVS provides a narrative description of the action taking place on the screen. It allows persons who don’t see the ability to follow non-verbal action without disturbing other patrons in a movie theater. We have found the DVS at this theater unreliable in the past but decided to pay our money and take our chances.
I requested a headset for accessing the Descriptive Video Service (DVS) as soon as we entered the theater. It took a few tries to persuade the Assistant Manager that DVS is different from what AMC calls “Assistive Listening” for persons with hearing difficulties. The Assistant Manager mentioned to one of his co-workers that he had only been shown once how-to setup the accessibility service. We received a set up headphones and a receiver and were told we were all set to enjoy the movie.
After an endless stream of previews, which did not include Descriptive Video Service, the movie finally started. It quickly became clear that the receiver I was given did not support DVS. My wife, Helen, left the theater to find someone who could provide the proper equipment. After a long while, Helen returned with a staff member who offered another device for assisted listening. We confirmed that a device for persons with hearing difficulties does not provide DVS. After disappearing for a while two staff members returned, one carrying a device that displayed closed captioning for persons who are hearing impaired. Helen pointed out that this was not of value to someone who does not see. The staff member then suggested the assistive listening receiver as a solution. I finally asked the staff member to put on the headphones while facing me and tell me what was happening on the movie screen. When we confirmed that the staff member was not able to tell me what was happening, a point of clarity was achieved. After another trip out to the lobby a staff member returned with a device that provided DVS. At this point I was ready to start watching the movie and my fellow audience members could be done with the parade of staff members running through the theater.
We spoke to a manager about our experience after the movie. I let the manager know I found it unacceptable to miss part of the movie while the staff scrambled around to figure out how to deliver the Descriptive Video Service (DVS). I noted the problem was not a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the staff. The manager told us about having many customers and few staff members. He offered us a set of complimentary tickets as a consolation for missing the start of the movie. When I suggested this is a problem that should be addressed at a level beyond the front-line staff, the manager identified himself as the General Manager and said there was no-one else to talk to. I did not bring up the fact that this is not the first time we’ve been through this drama. I accepted the comp tickets.
The General Manager’s response prompted me to want to contact someone at the corporate offices. I thought I would write a persuasive statement making the business case for persons with disabilities (PWD) as members of the movie-going public. It was ironic that one of the first things I found when I did an internet search using the phrase, “AMC descriptive video service for patrons” was a court case against AMC Theaters that was settled in April of 2017. In the settlement, AMC agreed to do all the things I would have suggested in a letter to the company. AMC has already been down this road and apparently ignored the terms of the court settlement, and now what?
Denying access to persons with disabilities (PWD) to the movie-going experience is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A side consequence of the GM’s apparent inability to support the descriptive video service on a timely basis is that having staff members scrambling to figure out how to do their jobs is just not an efficient use of staff time. In this case, a 30 second transaction turned into a half-hour circus of three staff members running around to provide a well-advertised service to one patron. The GM’s claim of being short-staffed does not seem to be well supported here. There seems to be great opportunity for increasing customer service, employee satisfaction and overall profitability of the theater. The problem itself is one of organizational development: business processes, contingency planning, and staff education.
Applying the lessons
On its face this is a story about disability accommodations in a specific setting. While the connection to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is clear, the solution to the problem can be most directly addressed through tools found in organizational development and business systems analysis. Among the take-aways from the experience:
- The theater does not appear to have a process to verify they can deliver on advertised features (such as Descriptive Video Service)
- Staff was trained but did not have confidence in their ability to provide the DVS service. At a time when good employees are hard to find and retain, hoping employees will remember the details of a one-time training in a high-stress situation seems an invitation for frustration and job dissatisfaction
- The cost of failure was high -three staff members over a half hour
- There was no process for testing the equipment: by the time a problem was detected, it was urgent. Note: this was addressed in the Court settlement AMC entered into in 2017
- The lack of proper prior preparation supports the notion that a person with a disability caused a disruption of the theater viewing experience for other patrons
- The General Manager expressed helplessness to address the problem. As a nation-wide corporation, AMC could provide each movie center with a standard set of procedures that would provide a consistent customer experience. This does not appear to be the case
Alternatively, overturning the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 would allow the organization to exclude persons with disabilities from the meaning of “open to the public.” The problem disappears, but it doesn’t.
Be a part of the conversation
I facilitate two roundtable conversations through two social media channels:
- Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) is focused on the intersection of persons with disabilities (PWD) and professional/skilled settings
- Servant-Leader engages people at the intersection of Servant Leadership and institutional disenfranchisement
- AMC Theatres. (2021) “Assistive Movie going Guest Guide.” Retrieved 1/8/20222. https://www.amctheatres.com/assistive-moviegoing/guest-guide
- Disability Rights Advocates. (n/a). “Audio Description in AMC Theaters.” Retrieved 1/8/2022. https://dralegal.org/case/audio-description-amc-theaters/#main
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Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings
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