Regent Theatre contemplating accessibility upgrades after family’s disappointing evening

Moving forward - The management of the Regent Theatre is willing to explore ways to improve accessibility where they are able within the confines of a 100-year-old building. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

New seating, reconfiguration among options under consideration

ADAM BRAMBURGER

STAFF WRITER

The experience of a less-than-satisfied family attending a movie at the Regent Theatre recently has left the theatre’s management pondering accessibility in the 100-year-old facility.

In early July, Lisa Zachariah’s family of six visited the theatre to take in a movie to celebrate her daughter Jaimee’s 26th birthday. They wanted to watch the film together with Jaimee being able to remain in her wheelchair on the balcony, which they believed was handicapped seating.

After asking other patrons if they could move to accommodate Jaimee’s request, Zachariah went to the canteen and asked staff members if they would help facilitate the request. A staff member, then a manager, suggested that Jaimee sit along the back row of the theatre with one attendee. That suggestion didn’t sit well with Zachariah.

“It’s her birthday and we shouldn’t even have to stick her back there like this,” Zachariah said. “It’s not safe, there’s no barriers whatsoever. She could topple over the people sitting there. Why should my daughter be excluded and sitting in the back corner by herself? That isn’t acceptable.”

She noticed the people on the balcony were able-bodied people of a range of ages. Zachariah also wondered why, as a paying customer, she’d have to sit in a hard office chair for two hours.

She was told the space in the back row — and not the balcony — was designated due to a fire code issue.

Zachariah said her family goes to the Regent as it’s more affordable than the Belleville theatre, it’s easier for Jaimee than a 40-minute drive, and the family believes in supporting local business.

The story blew up on social media with members of the public calling on the Regent to make the situation right. Zachariah said her hope is for her family to watch a movie together and for the Regent to consider the accessibility of all patrons coming through its doors.

She said she’d even help raise funds for accessibility improvements if the theatre commits to them.

“If it comes to they need money for renovations to take the partition wall out and remove a few of those seats so there’s room up top there, I’ll start fundraising. We’ve raised thousands of dollars for people in this community. I’ll start another one,” she said.

“It’s a pretty easy thing. Remove the partition wall (at the top of the balcony), remove a few of those seats and have it labelled.”

The Regent’s general manager, Neil Shorthouse, said the balcony area was never intended as handicap seating, but rather an area for elderly patrons and those with mobility issues walking. He said there was a teachable moment in the signage designating that area.

“The signage has been here for years. It doesn’t say you can’t block the aisle, so we’re working on appropriate signage that tells the story of exactly what this seating is here for,” he said.

Board chair Bob Cooke added that a wheelchair in an aisle might block a fire exit, whereas a cane or a walker that could be tucked away wouldn’t.

Shorthouse said in 2011 when the theatre was renovated, the back wall was designated as the accessible seating area with room designated for 14 people with wheelchairs and their attendants. He said it passed the code at that time.

“The reason it’s here is because the physical layout of the building makes it difficult to bring in any wheelchairs, not only to the seating areas but there’s no amenities available to them. Even if we wanted to place people in the front row, we would have difficulty getting them there,” he said.

Shorthouse said he’d like to reach out to mobility impaired patrons and their families, including the Zachariahs, to learn about their experiences and how the theatre can improve.

Cooke said the board is looking at purchasing some portable theatre-style seating with comfortable padding to improve attendants’ comfort. He said Shorthouse is also considering renovations.

“Another possibility Neil is doing some work on is to reconfigure (the balcony). The sound booth with controls would have to be moved — possibly downstairs, and we’d have to take out possibly a row or two of seats. It’s not a small undertaking, but the thought is being undertaken on how to make it better.”

Shorthouse said in his seven months at the Regent, there has been an ongoing discussion with staff and with board members about making the facility totally accessible, including the loft and stage area.

“This has been an ongoing dialogue for several months. Obviously, this issue has accelerated that a bit, but we see that as a positive step that we’re creating some awareness. Money is always a challenge for us, but we don’t see it as an impediment for us to make short-term changes.”

Shorthouse is familiar with the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and he’s constantly looking to incorporate its elements into staff training and into the theatre’s web site as well. He also said he hopes to engage with the County’s accessibility advisory committee in the future.

Customers may also be able to call the theatre ahead to raise accessibility concerns with staff. Unlike the movies, which don’t typically require a registration system, for live performances, they typically must call or e-mail ahead to book accessible seating.