BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Film Festival organizers confronted dozens of accessibility issues since the event's inception, from moving people in wheelchairs into seating areas in the Old Town Playhouse to providing closed-captioning for a festival that last year sold more than 91,000 tickets.
But the Bijou Theater's opening surpassed all previous efforts, said Susan Odgers, long-time film festival patron and a consultant for accessibility.
"The success of the re-purposing of the former Con Foster Museum, built in 1935, defies the argument that a historic building can't be made accessible to everyone." she said.
Odgers toured the newly opened theater on Monday and said she's astounded by features built into the theater to improve accessibility. Odgers, who has been confined to a wheel chair since 1976, said the new theater will allow those with disabilities to focus more on enjoying a film screening and less on hurdles they must overcome to attend.
"One thing I'm always thinking about is safety," Odgers said. "Can I get out of here? Just physically, do I feel comfortable in the space that I'm in? (In many theaters) I can't just suspend thinking about myself and think about the movie."
Festival organizers take disabled access seriously enough that they called in Jim Moore, executive director of the Disability Network, to help guide their policies and practices.
Festival-goers who don't have disabilities might not notice them, but significant accessibility features have been added to this year's event.
There are five wheelchair-accessible spaces in the Bijou, three in the front and two halfway back. Patrons who need the space must buy companion tickets to alert festival workers to how many of the spaces they need to reserve.
Also available for films at the Bijou and the State Theater are Sony glasses that display closed-captioning on lenses for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Moore said.
"They're pretty neat," he said.
On the flip side, some films now have added dialogue describing what is happening on screen for blind patrons, Moore said. That extra dialogue will be piped to those who need it through a headphone system available in those theaters.
Both restrooms at the former museum have accessible stalls and feature paper towel dispensers set lower on the walls.
And in the lobby, the theater has an accessible drinking fountain that features a tap for filling water bottles near the waist-height concessions counter.
Accessibility will be on ongoing issue that festival organizers will continue to confront, Moore said.
"We are working with buildings sometimes that were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act," he said.