Unleashing the Potential of Technology: Enhancing Movie Theater Accessibility through Sensory-Friendly Screenings

Children and their grandparents wearing protective face masks while watching movies at the cinema.
Technology For Transformation
This narrative forms part of Tech for Change: an ongoing series where we illuminate positive applications of technology, illustrating how they contribute to making our world a better place.

They claim that the cinema experience is incomparable. Indeed, with a captivating movie and the right atmosphere, there’s nothing quite like settling in with a delightful beverage and delicious snacks to watch a fantastic film. Some cinemas elevate the experience with enormous IMAX screens, immersive surround sound systems, and motion seats that add another layer of thrill. The ambiance of a theater can profoundly enhance a movie, especially when surrounded by a large audience. I recall the exhilaration of watching Avengers: Endgame on opening weekend in a full theater, cheering when Cap wielded Mjolnir.

These screenings create a sense of camaraderie as like-minded individuals come together to revel in a shared passion. Even if you never exchange words with the person next to you — and why would you? — everyone is still connected through the experience. But what about those who cannot enjoy this setting? Some individuals do not find joy in overwhelming sensory stimuli, especially those who are neurodivergent and more sensitive to loud noises, intense visuals, and bright lights. While society is becoming more understanding of neurodiverse individuals, there is still progress to be made to fully embrace an inclusive approach.

Neurodivergent individuals encounter challenges that neurotypical individuals cannot fathom. For instance, the scenario of a crowded cinema with booming sounds, flashing lights, and an excited audience. While a neurotypical person might find joy in this, it could be distressing for a neurodivergent individual, depriving them of a potentially enjoyable movie experience. For a long time, the entertainment industry remained oblivious to the struggles faced by neurodivergent individuals. However, as awareness grows, efforts are being made to create a more inclusive environment where everyone can relish a movie. This is where sensory-friendly screenings come in, an initiative gradually gaining popularity in cinemas.

What constitutes a sensory-friendly screening?

Audience in a movie theater looking forward and smiling.

Sensory-friendly screenings are tailored specifically for individuals with sensory sensitivities, including those on the autism spectrum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2023, 1 in 36 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, underlining the importance of educating ourselves and actively adapting our practices to foster inclusivity and acceptance. Sensory-friendly screenings offer a unique presentation: the lights are brightened, the volume is lowered, and there are no previews or advertisements. This setup creates a welcoming atmosphere where toddlers, children, and individuals with autism can enjoy a film in a stress-free environment. Interaction is encouraged, allowing singing, talking, standing up, and even using mobile devices, enabling audiences to engage with the movie on their own terms. As a result, a new community is formed that is more accommodating, less rigid, and fluid. With fewer restrictions, these screenings provide a sanctuary for neurodivergent individuals to escape the often overwhelming external world while enjoying a movie.

Commenting on the importance of sensory-friendly screenings, Jacqueline Paige Grand Pré from the Jacob Burns Film Center remarks, “It’s evident that traditional movie screenings can be challenging for individuals with sensory sensitivities due to loud sounds, glaring lights, and unfamiliar surroundings.” Grand Pré’s observation is supported by research from SPARK, an autism research study and community for individuals on the autism spectrum, revealing that “At some point in their lives, 50 to 70 percent of individuals with autism were hypersensitive to ordinary sounds.”

Ryan Wenke, executive director of The Prospector Theater in Connecticut, adds, “We strive to ensure the entire experience is sensory-friendly. Our staff refrains from using microphones during movie introductions, avoids scheduling other events or showtimes simultaneously, and designates Quiet Spaces where guests can retreat if feeling overwhelmed or in need of a break.” In a world that is increasingly stressful and demanding, even for neurotypical individuals, the challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals are escalating. Should it not be a priority to go the extra mile to provide a less intense experience for them?

How does technology improve sensory-friendly screenings?

Initially, one might perceive technology as having a minor impact on sensory-friendly screenings. As Cassie Nichols from AMC Theatres explains, “Two manual adjustments are made to the theater environment — keeping the house lights at trailer level and tailoring the sound to suit the audience in each theater.” Grand Pré elaborates, stating that “the theater personnel and projectionists experimented with various audio-visual settings to determine the most suitable configuration for the space.”

In these screenings, what benefits one benefits all. Therefore, these standard settings are replicated for each showing, ensuring consistency — at least, to a certain extent. The lighting remains constant, while the sound varies depending on the sound design of each film. “Our projectionists conduct tech screenings, essentially a rehearsal before the main event, to ascertain the base volume level for a particular film and adjust the audio accordingly for sensory-friendly screenings,” Grand Pré explains. Audiences appreciate these efforts, as the familiarity of the environment may alleviate some of the apprehension, encouraging them to revisit for future screenings.

This marks the beginning of advancements in sensory-friendly screenings. Each theater is developing a unique approach to their screenings, with some establishments leading the way. For instance, The Prospector Theater goes above and beyond. A non-profit organization dedicated to providing inclusive and competitive employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, The Prospector is reshaping the landscape of movie viewing. Distinguished from other cinemas, The Prospector offers two essential tools that can vastly enhance the experience.

Strobe-canceling glasses are available upon request, a valuable aid that should be more widely available in cinemas worldwide. Tinted glasses, such as those from TheraSpecs, shield the brain from visual stimuli like harsh lights, safeguarding the wearer against overstimulation, damage, and potential seizures. While the lighting in these screenings is regulated to provide a less intense viewing experience, strobe-canceling glasses offer an additional layer of protection for those in need, further personalizing their theater experience.

The Prospector also provides noise-canceling headphones upon request. While sound is integral to the movie experience, it is not indispensable, and offering noise-canceling headphones allows certain neurodivergent individuals to appreciate the visual aspects of a film while avoiding loud noises. However, wearing these headphones highlights a gap in the movie theater experience — the lack of accessibility to closed captions for individuals with hearing impairments. Progress is being made in this area as well.

Some cinemas already provide closed-caption glasses, which provide real-time captions as the movie progresses. Driven by an algorithm, these glasses sync with the screenplay, matching it with sounds and lighting in the theater. The regulated sound and lighting at sensory-friendly screenings do not interfere with these technological marvels, making them a perfect complement when used in conjunction with noise-canceling headphones. This tailored approach offers a revolutionary and personalized experience to individuals who may have previously struggled to fully enjoy a movie. When it comes to inclusivity and making art accessible, this is the epitome of progress.

How can technology further enhance sensory-friendly screenings?

If the aim is to create a more inclusive environment, there are numerous opportunities to enhance sensory-friendly screenings further. While significant strides have already been made in making these screenings more commonplace and accessible, the project is still in its infancy. This is not a criticism; on the contrary, it signifies a promising beginning and a commitment to continuous improvement.

Consider closed-caption stands, a novel yet scarce technological innovation. Comprising a flexible pole attached to a small screen designed to fit into the cup holder, closed-caption stands, although potentially inconvenient for some, could greatly benefit neurodivergent individuals by providing a tactile tool akin to fidget devices, enabling them to enjoy the movie comfortably. Closed-caption stands hold tremendous potential if they were more prevalent in cinemas and easier to utilize. Regrettably, these stands are rare and susceptible to malfunctions, particularly if not handled with care. They can also be challenging to adjust, adding an element of discomfort to the viewing experience.

Accessibility should extend beyond the screening itself to encompass websites and ticketing services. Social interactions can be challenging for neurodivergent individuals, and features like screen reader accessibility and simplified website versions can significantly ease navigation. Screen readers, available for various platforms like macOS, Windows, and iOS, convert text into speech, allowing users to control the interface through a keyboard. Meanwhile, streamlined versions of a theater’s website can greatly benefit individuals who may feel overwhelmed by flashy trailers and excessive content.

The movie experience begins long before entering the cinema, sometimes hours or even days in advance, a fact overlooked by many theaters. Adapting the entire journey, from ticket purchase to the actual viewing, is crucial for creating a more welcoming and accessible cinematic experience.

Which cinemas offer sensory-friendly screenings?

A person watching a movie in a theater.

As previously mentioned, numerous cinemas already provide sensory-friendly screenings. AMC, Harkins, Regal, and the Jacob Burns Film Center are among the many establishments offering this commendable initiative. Contrary to popular belief, these screenings are not rare or reserved for specific occasions, although they may not yet be as prevalent as standard showings. Cassie Nichols from AMC states, “The demand mirrors that of any other movie we screen — popular titles attract more viewers.”

More cinemas can adopt these screenings. Entities like Dimensions in the U.K. provide instructional videos on conducting sensory-friendly screenings. The training is user-friendly and dispels some of the misconceptions surrounding these screenings. After all, the ultimate goal of art is to open doors, dismantle barriers, and amplify voices. A great movie entertains, captivates, and inspires. However, the finest movies reveal profound insights into human nature, exposing us to new perspectives and experiences, connecting us with people and ideas that might otherwise remain out of reach.

For too long, this enriching, transformative experience has been inaccessible to neurodivergent individuals. At the core of art must always lie empathy, the desire to connect and communicate. Sensory-friendly screenings, along with the technology and human touch that underpin them, provide an avenue for art to fulfill its true purpose — to enrich, expand, and flow. Art should be inclusive, catering to all, from masterpieces like Oppenheimer to the latest box office hits like Rebel Moon. Everyone should have the chance to watch a movie, and it is up to them to decide if they enjoy it or not.

Bella Anderson

Bella is a tech enthusiast turned journalist, passionate about decoding complex innovations into understandable insights.

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