- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2000

How far should businesses open to the general public be required to go in order to accommodate those with disabilities? This is the question presented by the lawsuit filed this week by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Donald Stern, against National Amusements Inc. and Hoyt's Cinemas Corp. The action accuses the theater chains of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) because the stadium-style seating used in theaters operated by these chains is not as handicapped-friendly as in conventional theaters.

Stadium seating, which has grown in popularity, allows for a clear "line-of-sight" view of the screen unobstructed by the rows in front, no matter where a patron happens to be sitting. The problem is that the stadium seating layout is not as accessible to those with some disabilities, most particularly those confined to wheelchairs. However, both Hoyts and National Amusements provide handicapped seating in their stadium theater facilities. Nonetheless, handicapped viewers claim "discrimination" because all the seats are not as easily accessible to them as they are to those without handicaps.

This could mean the end of stadium-style theaters because it may prove too costly to design them in such a way as to make them equally accessible to all and avoid endless ADA lawsuits. Special ramps would be required at each level, which could prove a difficult, costly engineering challenge involving elevators and lifts.

Ultimately, the vast majority of people, who are not handicapped, may be deprived of the great pleasure of an unobstructed view, in order to accommodate a small minority of the population with handicaps.

Compassion for people with disabilities is not the issue here though of course that's precisely how it will be framed. We all wish no one were confined to a wheelchair or had to live with a serious impairment, either physical or mental. It is sad and may be "unfair" in a metaphysical sense. However, it is not "discrimination" to fail to design a theater in a way that accommodates the handicapped first and the non-handicapped majority second.

Hoyts and National Amusements provide seats in their stadium-style theaters especially reserved for those with disabilities who are unable to use the stepped-up rows. The theaters are accessible and handicapped patrons are able to view movies. This seems a reasonable accommodation. Mr. Stern and the federal ADA have crossed over the line separating compassion for the less fortunate from politically correct extortion.

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