What do cinemas do to support those with additional needs?

Audio described, captioned and autism-friendly screenings – our guide to how cinemas help everyone get something out of the movies.

Going to the cinema is an activity loved and shared by many, but the traditional screening doesn’t cater to everyone’s needs. For those with additional needs pertaining to vision and hearing, and those with other physical or sensory difficulties, enjoying the latest film can often be a struggle.

Although there’s an argument to be made that cinemas don’t do enough to help those with additional needs to make it to the movies, recent years have undeniably seen a spike in support from several cinema chains.

If you or a loved one has additional needs, and would like to know how the cinema supports them, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve had a trawl through the internet to find the support offered by the UK’s major cinema chains with regards to various forms of additional need.

If we’ve missed something you would like to know more about, please let us know in the comments section at the end of this article, and we’ll do our best to help. Here’s everything we found out…

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Requiring assistance

The term ‘requiring assistance’ covers a broad spectrum of additional needs. Anyone who needs a carer or helper to facilitate their cinema trip falls into this category. This category is supported fairly well by cinemas, thanks to The Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA) Card Scheme.

This project, originated by the CEA (now known as the UKCA, the UK Cinema Association), is a nationwide card scheme developed for UK cinemas in 2004. The scheme entitles any cardholder who requires assistance to a complimentary ticket for someone to attend the screening with them.

The CEA deems this as ‘reasonable adjustment’ to the running of cinemas, and rightly so. You can apply for a CEA card here.

The development of this scheme was overseen by the UKCA’s Disability Working Group, which included members from major film distributors, independent exhibitors and several national charities such as Action on Hearing Loss, the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the National Deaf Children’s Society.

Approximately 90% of cinemas accept this card, according to the CEA Card website. You can find your nearest participating cinema with a simple postcode search, here. Hopefully, that percentage will rise to 100% at some point, but free cinema admission for carers accompanying someone who requires assistance at 90% of cinemas is a welcome big step forward.

Restricted mobility

Restricted access in cinemas has long been a struggle for wheelchair users and  people with mobility-based needs. Arguably, cinemas have begun to wake up to the need for unrestricted access for less mobile people wishing to attend their screenings, but the situation still isn’t perfect.

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In most cases, though, you can now find out the level of restricted mobility access by looking up your chosen cinema online. The Cineworld website helpfully lists which sites are wheelchair friendly and which aren’t, for example. Fulham Road, Hammersmith and Crawley are the only Cineworld cinemas that they claim have ‘less than full wheelchair access or restricted access to certain screens.’

Vue’s website tells us that all their cinemas are wheelchair accessible, while Odeon’s online accessibility notes say “we aim to make our cinemas as accessible as reasonably possible by removing barriers to access. However, at some of our older locations this may not be possible due to the age of the building or the construction techniques used when they were built.”

“Where only some screens at a cinema are accessible by guests with restricted mobility,” Odeon’s statement continues, “the cinema teams will rotate screenings so that most films will show in an accessible screen at some point in their engagement at the cinema.”

If you visit your local cinema’s page on the Odeon website, then select ‘wheelchair friendly’ in the tick boxes on the right hand side, this will show you which screenings are accessible to restricted mobility customers at your local Odeon. For smaller independent cinemas, you may find some information on the relevant websites. Failing that, calling the box office may be the best option when checking the accessibility of a cinema you haven’t attended before.

Another matter, though, is whether cinemas do enough to offer good seats and experiences to paying customers with limited mobility. The late Chris Beaumont – part of the Trailblazers charity who compiled a report on cinema’s treatment of wheelchair users in 2011 – said this of an experience at Leeds Vue:

“The wheelchair bays are to the left and right of the screen, and there was not a very good view and it was a bit dark in places. I’d spent a lot of money on the ticket so I moved to the aisle to get a better view. The cinema was nearly empty but the manager still told me to move because of fire regulations. I decided to leave because I was getting a sub-standard service.”

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You can read their full report here, which highlights that – although things may be on a turn for the better – attending the cinema is still a struggle for some wheelchair users in the UK.

Hearing impairments

Being deaf or hard of hearing should not affect someone’s ability to attend the cinema on a regular basis. With the growing simplicity of captioning films via subtitles, it should be easy to attend a screening of a popular film regardless of hearing issues.

In some cases, this seems to be true. Odeon’s website tells us that “whenever a film is released with captions for the hard of hearing we do try to schedule it at our cinemas – captioned for hard of hearing performances are listed separately so you can choose these specific performances.”

Odeon also offers Infra Red headsets to improve the volume of the soundtrack for the hearing impaired, and has hearing loops at ‘some’ box office and food counters. Cineworld offers subtitles at ‘certain performances,’ and boasts hearing loops in every auditorium except for their branch within the former Millennium Dome, the O2 Centre. Vue says that “each of our auditoriums has an enhanced sound system broadcast through an individual headset.”

Each major cinema chain’s respective website offers a way to filter results to display only the captioned performances. However, an easier way to search for a cinema near you that is showing your desired film with added subtitles is the brilliant website YourLocalCinema.com. Here you can select your town and see every captioned screening in your local area, with dates and times, too.

Seeing as most cinemas will only show a handful of subtitled screenings on a weekly basis (a situation that may never change, we fear), YourLocalCinema.com is a great way to cut out the faff of scouring the web in search of that one elusive screening that you can actually get to on time.

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Indie cinemas often support their hearing impaired patrons well, with my local Picturehouse branch (the Harbour Lights in Southampton) proudly offering hearing loops in all its screens for those who rely on hearing aids. Again, though, it’s best to scope out a new cinema online before booking tickets.

Visual impairments

For the visually impaired, audio-description headsets are widely offered. While cinemas are reluctant to offer more subtitled showings, audio-described options seem to have become more and more popular (over 300 UK screens now support audio descriptive services).

Presumably, as cynical as this is to say, audio description is more popular among cinema chains because they don’t alter the film for everyone else in the audience (whereas captioned screenings do). Despite that irritating truth, the rise of audio-described screenings is undoubtedly a very good thing.

Odeon are “committed to providing accessible screenings for our guests who are blind or are partially sighted. Certain films are provided with a separate Audio Description dialogue track where the action, scene changes and the actors’ body language is described in addition to the dialogue.”

“If this separate track is available and provided to the cinema,” Odeon’s website notes, “all of our screens are capable of playing this extra commentary through a lightweight headset which is available at the cinema Box Office.”

“Audio description performances for the sight impaired are available at certain cinemas,” says Cineworld, before stating that “you may be asked to leave a credit card or other form of ID while [the audio-described headset] is being used.”

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Looking at the website of my local Vue, it looks like almost every screening offers audio description for the visually impaired. Their website also makes sure to note that “audio description is provided via a specially designed set of headphones, therefore any guests who do not wish to take advantage of this facility will not be affected by this whatsoever.”

When booking tickets online via a major cinema chain, you’ll often find a tick-box to narrow your search to audio-described screenings only. At smaller cinemas, check online or give them a call.

And while we’re speaking of sight issues: we’ve read a few reports of colour blind people who struggle to watch 3D cinema (both the old two-tone glasses style and the modern Avatar type). Sadly, if this affects you, it sounds like there’s no solution beyond opting for a 2D showing instead.

Autism and sensory difficulties

Looking at some forums online, it would seem that many parents are nervous about bringing children with autism or other sensory difficulties to a regular cinema screening. Bad experiences of the past seem to be the main reason, with the general jist of the issues being other cinemagoers’ reactions to their children’s behaviour, despite the fact it couldn’t be helped one iota.

While we hope that some cinemagoers would have more understanding than that, you can certainly emphasise with the parents who have gone off the idea of family cinema trips because of their fellow patrons’ reactions to their children’s difficulties.

Now, though, there’s an alternative to the standard cinema trip for children that love watching films who happen to have autism or other learning difficulties. Although they’re the least-programmed type of additional needs screenings, we’ve heard great things about these ‘autism-friendly’ screenings, as they’ve become known.

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To cite Odeon again (because their website section on accessibility is so much more detailed than any other chain’s): “the special performances have subtle changes to the cinema environment which mean that people who have sensory difficulties have a more positive experience than they would in a traditional cinema setting.”

These changes include: “the lights being kept on at a low level; lower than usual sound levels; no trailers or advertisements – just the film; and, allowance for increased levels of movement and noise.”

Odeon, Cineworld and Vue all offer these screenings, and again, you can find them on their websites. Odeon has a whole page dedicated to autism, where they are discussing adding Monday night autism-friendly screenings on top of their usual weekend schedule.

In other good news, Vue offers autism-friendly tickets for just £1.99 and also host a regular Film Club for those with additional needs. Additionally, Picturehouse list their autism-friendly screenings on a dedicated section of their website.

It’s worth noting, though: the easiest way to find your nearest autism-friendly screening is through Dimensions, a charity that offers support services for people with learning disabilities and autism. If you click this link, you will reach a splinter page of their website, which will help point you in the direction of upcoming autism-friendly screenings in your area.


We added this update around midday on the 29th May 2015, because the fine folks at Tyneside Cinema got in touch with us. Do feel free to do the same if you have information to add to our article.

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Tyneside Cinema are piloting a project to assist those with dementia in attending cinema screenings. As their website states, “dementia is a disease which can have a dramatic impact on what cultural activities people feel able to participate in.”

To help these people enjoy the cinematic experience, Tyneside Cinema are involved in “a research project to test new approaches to make [attending screenings] easier for those who have dementia, their carers, companions and families.”

A statement on their website reads: “from July 2015, Tyneside Cinema will be running a series of regular daytime film screenings for people with dementia and their carers and families and we are seeking input from these people, in particular, to help develop our approach.”

It continues: “The Dementia Friendly Cinema project was initiated by the Elders Council of Newcastle who also provided seed funding to start the project. It has been developed and informed by a steering group which includes the Elders Council, Tyneside Cinema, Alzheimer’s Society, Newcastle Carers, Dementia Care, Newcastle Quality of Life Partnership and Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing.”

If you have experiences that might be useful to this project, and would like to help out, please click here and complete a simple survey. Also, you can click here for more information on their project.

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So, while there are still issues and annoyances out there for cinemagoers with additional needs (poor positioning for wheelchair users, the irregularity of subtitled screenings), it’s good to know that cinemas are moving towards a better status quo.

To reiterate what we said earlier: do let us know of any cinema-effecting additional needs we’ve missed, and we’ll keep this article up to date.

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