The members in the collective leaving the theatre after the film show / Photo Courtesy: Jasmine Anwar
Even when the state government is not seen as very proactive in ensuring differently-abled friendly entertainment spaces, a collective of mothers in Thrissur has taken the baby steps for claiming the rights of their special children.
A group of 20 mothers who are in and around the Irinjalakuda region of Thrissur, know one another since the time they enrolled their children in a special school in the locality. They meet on a regular basis as they are the ones who accompany the children to the school. They have been planning for a long time to take their special children as a group to some leisure activity. The discussion on the topic gained new momentum when pandemic curbs were lifted after a gap of two years. They decided to arrange a special film show for their children. On June 9, these mothers along with their 20 wards with special needs watched the Malayalam movie Jo and Jo (Jomon & Jomol) in a local theatre.
According to Jasmine Anwar, mother of a child having cerebral palsy, “the mothers had a worry how children would react to the experience”. Pertinently, among the 20 children, for more than half it was their first visit to the theatre in their lifetime. 18 of the children are having cerebral palsy while two of them have down's syndrome.
The mothers arranged for the special show because they thought that if some child makes some noise or starts to cry or become restless, it should not bother others. However, interestingly, nothing of that sort happened and all the children enjoyed the show to their heart's content. The theatre staffers too were very welcoming. Moreover, these mothers were happy to see how their children enjoyed the film show.
Sheeba Suresh, another mother who is part of the collective, shared her joy. "My daughter is 12-year-old and at home she mostly watches sitcoms and reality shows on TV. We thought she does not like movies. But the way she was enjoying the film in its fullest spirit in the theatre experience surprised us," she said.
Apparently, almost all mothers in the collective are the ones who dropped their careers for the upbringing of their children. Their wards are in the ages between eight to 18. The mothers and wards are forced to avoid theaters as accessibility for the differently-abled is poor in most theatres across the state. Another major concern has been whether their presence affects the viewing experience of others in theatres. But what these mothers learnt from this theatre experiment is that their children can be confidently brought to places of social interaction and entertainment spaces.
"The theater experience was really an eye-opener. It changed our perspective and that of our families. After the show children feel that they would like to watch films in theatres, at least once in every month. It has given us an opportunity to shed our inhibitions and concerns about theatre visit," said Sindhu MR, another mother.
Ashish V Shaju, aged 18 who watched the film said that it was his second film at a theatre and "it was a really different experience to watch the film with friends". According to Fathima PA, aged 16 who had fear while visiting theatres in her childhood, said that she was completely happy during this film show. "I will go to the theater again and again. We all want to enjoy it," she added.
Meanwhile, mothers urged that authorities concerned should make policy wise intervention to make theatres differently-abled friendly so that their children can enter cinema halls without seeking anyone's help. Most theatres don't even have ramps and the seating arrangements are not fit to accommodate wheelchairs. They asserted that it wouldn't be a practical thing to knock for or accept "mercy or charity" every time and they want accessibility for differently-abled people to be guaranteed by the government, as it is their constitutional right.
Referring to the film theatre experiment, Dr. Seema Girija Lal, co- founder of Together We Can advocacy group and a special educator cum psychologist, said that it is great that the parents got together to voice for the rights of their children and have access to public spaces such as theatres. Yet, what was created was a segregated space and screening due to inaccessibility to common spaces and times, she pointed out.
"Segregation is a counterproductive solution. It is important to understand from the perspectives of both the theatre owner and the mothers and co-create a way forward to accommodate all wheelchair users. We are voicing the same here in Ernakulam for accessibility issues with the theatres. Mayor Anil Kumar has initiated discussions and is working on a way forward," she said.
Paresh Palicha, a film critic and a person effectively mitigating cerebral palsy, who is also a disability rights activist pointed out about the harmonized guidelines released on 23rd March 2016 in tune with The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act, 2016. "According to the mandate, theatres should have basic facilities like ramps or lifts. However it seems theatre owners are not bothered about it. Even when these theatres get renovated, the authorities concerned that sanction the construction fail to ensure whether they are abiding by the mandate in place," he said.
It may be noted that actually these mothers are made to cherish the experience from 'special show' as a success because the policy framework fails to imbibe an inclusive approach and it has normalized segregation in public spaces. Glaringly, it is a problematic trend.