The Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St., has replaced its “Stay Safe Athens” letter board with “Now Showing” and a list of movie titles, as movie nights have finally resumed.
Watching on the big screen, enormous tubs of popcorn and collective audience excitement are fun for anyone, but for those who live with disabilities, going to a regular showing can be difficult. Enter the Athena Cinema’s Accessibility Series.
The Accessibility Series consisted of three showings of independent films, one each on three consecutive Saturdays in September. The showings all included closed captioning on-screen, offering a device-free way to watch for individuals with difficulty hearing or for whom comprehension is made easier with captioning. Each screening was also sensory-friendly, adjusting lighting and sound levels to create a more comfortable viewing experience. The series featured Sound of Metal on Sept. 11, Swan Song on Sept. 18 and Ailey on Sept. 25.
Alexandra Kamody, director of the Athena Cinema, said the series emerged as part of an ongoing commitment by the theater to providing inclusive experiences.
“We've done a lot of research as far as what it's like for folks who are deaf or hard of hearing or people with visual impairments, and I've gone to a few seminars, and it's just really disappointing how little there is being done across the industry,” Kamody said. “We just wanted to make sure we were doing what we could do to create better experiences for people.”
Creating a more accessible experience for movie-goers has been a priority of the Athena for years. Before COVID-19 shutdowns, the Athena held Open-Caption Mondays to provide a weekly device-free experience that allowed for captioning and offered headset options to assist hard of hearing visitors for the remaining six days of the week. However, Kamody said recent staff cutbacks have required the theater to close on Mondays at this time.
While Open-Caption Mondays are temporarily on pause, Kamody said the theater will continue to offer accessible options whenever possible, and this three-part series is just a continuation of an ongoing project, not a one-time event.
“The plans aren't really concrete at this point, but it's absolutely always going to be an essential part of our programming,” she said. “We want the Athena to be a space for everyone, and I think it'll just be a matter of weeks before we’ve announced a new open-caption regular screening. We're just trying to figure out logistics.”
Arian Smedley, assistant superintendent of the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, or ACBDD, said the ACBDD was one of several Ohio organizations that helped make the program possible. Though Kamody said the majority of the funding was from a grant by the Ohio Arts Council, the ACBDD helped to get the word out by sharing the events on social media.
Smedley said the Athena was an important leader in the community by making such a strong commitment to accessibility and encouraged other businesses to follow their lead, offering ACBDD guidance for anyone who would like to make their business or event space more accessible but does not know where to start.
“We applaud the Athena Cinema for making this event possible,” Smedley said in an email. “They are serving as a role model for our community. We hope they do more events like these.”
Christina Perez, director of Student Accessibility at Ohio University, said while there is usually a way for individuals to request accommodations at event spaces, it is much more valuable for those spaces to work inclusivity into their programming.
“I think it's always better if we can be as inclusive as possible upfront,” Perez said. “It not only eliminates the need for individuals to ask for particular accommodations, but it also can support others who may not necessarily identify with a disability but could also be supported through some of the some of the steps that they're taking to be more inclusive of individuals with disabilities.”
Perez said the No. 1 thing students on OU’s campus can do to support fellow students with disabilities is to keep an open mind and be considerate of others because many students may struggle with disabilities that their fellow students would never see. She also encouraged everyone to go to the series and support the Athena.
“I would encourage students to check out the series if they have the time because I think it's a great way to bring awareness of the different things that people can do to help make things more accessible and inclusive,” Perez said.
Though the series concluded, the Athena’s commitment to creating an accessible movie theater experience for everyone will give students many future opportunities to support accessible showings. Details for future events can be found on the Athena’s accessibility page, and students are encouraged to attend.
“This isn't just for people who have a need due to a disability. This is also just to create an experience for everyone that is inclusive of everyone,” Kamody said. “These screens are for everyone.”