DOJ Slow To Define Adequate Wheelchair Placement
The Ultimate Question
by Steven John Fellman
NATO Washington Counsel
In 1999, NATO filed a petition for a rulemaking
with the Department of Justice requesting a new regulation
reasonable standards for stadium-style seating in a motion
In its proposal, NATO recommended that for
newly constructed auditoria of 300 seats or fewer, wheelchair
placed on a riser at least one third of the way back in
the auditorium as measured from the screen to the rear
wall of the auditorium. NATO proposed that the wheelchair
seating be centered horizontally within certain parameters.
NATO proposed that wheelchair seating be integrated in
the seating pattern of the auditorium with an unobstructed
view of the screen.
Five years later, on Sept. 30, 2004, Justice
proposed certain standards for locating wheelchair seating
in stadium style
auditoria of under 300 seats. It adopted most of NATO’s
recommendations. It agreed with NATO’s recommendation
that the wheelchair seating be placed on a riser. It agreed
with NATO’s recommendation that the wheelchair seating
be integrated in the auditorium with an unobstructed view
of the screen. Justice’s recommendation with regard
to horizontal dispersal of wheelchair seating is similar
to NATO’s recommendation.
The sole difference between
the Justice proposal and NATO’s
proposal is how far back in the auditorium the wheelchair
seating must be located. NATO proposed that the riser on
which the wheelchair seating be located be placed at least
one-third of the way back of the auditorium measuring from
the front of the screen to the rear wall of the auditorium.
Justice has proposed that the wheelchair seating be located
in the rear 60 percent of the seating of the auditorium.
NATO’s position is based on the fact
that the further back you move the wheelchair seating in
a small auditorium,
the more difficult it becomes to provide a dual means of
In a similar manner, there are also difficulties
ramping up to a higher location within the auditorium.
position is based on the concept of “equality.” Justice
believes that since wheelchair patrons are only provided
with one seating location in a small auditorium, that location
should provide a viewing experience that is at least as
good as the average viewing experience in the auditorium.
Justice believes that the front row seating in a stadium
style auditorium is not acceptable to most patrons because
in some auditoria the front row is too close to the screen.
Justice argues that the further back you are in a stadium-style
auditorium, the better the viewing experience. Justice
therefore concludes that the top half of the auditorium
provides better viewing angles than the bottom half, but
as a compromise, Justice is willing to accept wheelchair
seating located in the rear 60 percent of the seating in
The Access Board is the federal agency that
establishes minimum standards for accessibility. The board’s
new regulations explain that the wheelchair spaces in auditoria
with 300 seats or fewer do not have to be dispersed provided
that all the wheelchair spaces have “viewing angles
that are equivalent to or better than the average viewing
angle provided in the facility.”
What does this mean? Obviously, Justice
and disability rights advocates don’t like wheelchair seating in
the first row of a stadium-style theatre. But how about
the last row? Couldn’t these same people argue that
the last row of the theatre provides an equal problem?
What determines if a viewing angle is “better than” another
viewing angle? How do you measure viewing angles? Will
the viewing angle change if the screen is flat or if the
screen is curved?
Examine this hypothetical theatre. Assume that a theatre
has 11 rows. Each row has the same number of seats except
for the 6th row, which only has one seat, which is located
exactly in the middle of the row. The average viewing angle
for that theatre in our hypothetical is located at that
single seat in the middle of the 6th row. Does the seat
directly in front of that single seat have a better viewing
angle than the seat directly behind that single seat? On
what basis can you make such a determination?
As theatre operators, NATO members know
that different patrons have different ideas as to what
is the best seat
in a theatre.
If the Department of Justice wants to determine
wheelchair locations based on what seating locations are “better” than
others, there must be objective criteria set out in advance
to be used in making such determinations. So far, except
in the case of the very front rows, the department has
been unable to explain how it decides that some seats are
better than other seats.