It was Romi's last night in town before he returned to school for the spring semester and the Lara family wanted to do something together. Apparently the Laras have no aversion to sequels because they agreed on the latest installment of The Rock's action franchise, "Jumanji: The Next Level." It was playing at their favorite local theater, Studio Movie Grill, at 8 p.m.
Susan Lara checked the SMG website at 5:20 p.m. Friday afternoon and saw that five seats to that evening's showing were still available in the row set aside for disabled patrons; the Laras needed just four. Her son Raymond would be able to park his wheelchair in one of the handicapped slots and the other Laras could sit around him in two designated "companion" seats and a rollaway chair.
They arrived two hours early to buy tickets because the theater gift cards they'd received as Christmas presents aren't redeemable online. They were too late: By this time all of the disabled-row companion seats were sold out. Strange thing, though: All of the handicapped spaces were still available. Other movie patrons had purchased "companion" seats without bringing any disabled companions to "companion." Even though more than a dozen regular seats had been available at the time of their purchase. Even though a prompt pops up when a website customer selects a companion seat: “... If you are neither disabled nor a companion to a disabled guest, you will have to surrender your seat upon request. By acknowledging this (and tapping 'OK'), you are confirming that you understand.”
Except Studio Movie Grill won't ask guests to move out of companion seats, a manager told Susan Lara that night. Not that Lara wanted them to; she just wanted to call management's attention to a system that seems flawed.
"I guess some people just like those (disabled-row) seats," Lara said. "They have that extra legroom. This type of thing has happened before. We pick another time or another theater or we just don't go."
That night they just didn't go.
The Laras — Susan, Roman, Romi (Roman IV), a 23-year-old master's program student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Raymond, a 21-year-old special-ed senior at Centennial High School — are accustomed to this sort of thing by now, of course. Raymond, who lives with cerebral palsy and mitochondrial disease, has long negotiated a world that accommodates him some of the time, gives lip service some of the time, and turns him away the rest of the time.
There's been progress in the quest to regularize the lives of the disabled, no question. "We're making some headway," Roman Lara said.
Just not enough. People still snatch up parking-lot spaces designed for disabled drivers and/or their passengers. That's a constant source of irritation for Susan Lara, who says she doesn't use those spaces when she's not with Raymond, despite the placard on her van that gives her permission to do so.
Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines say operators of ticketed events such as concerts, plays and sporting events must provide accessible seats for the disabled and "up to three additional seats for their companions in the same row and ... contiguous.
"... If contiguous seats have already been sold and are not available, the venue must offer other seats as close as possible to the accessible seat."
Bakersfield attorney Dennis Beaver, who has written about ADA compliance, said the Laras' case sounds like a violation of that federal law. "They can't do that," he said. "My understanding is that if they have these seats available for the disabled, they need to reserve them for that purpose. They need to tell (other) people, 'Please move.'"
Once a show or screening begins, according to ADA guidelines, patrons cannot be asked to change seats but otherwise, Beaver said, "failing to do that, in my opinion, is a violation."
Teejay Scharf, general manager of the theater on Calloway Drive in Rosedale, referred questions about the incident to the Texas-based company's corporate office. He said the company has been notified of the Lara family's concerns but had not yet responded. Susan Lara said she had also independently contacted SMG corporate but likewise had not received a response.
"We actually really like that theater but it's hard to get in there," she said. "I'm kind of scared to go to a regular theater because it's open seating and you don't know if there'll be space" for handicapped seating.
So, what can the Laras' favorite theater do to solidify its status as their No. 1 preference?
"Don't sell those companion seats unless you sell a wheelchair seat with it," Susan Lara said. "That's something that comes to mind. They could ask if anyone is willing to give up a seat in the handicapped row."
In other words, SMG could enforce its own clearly stated policy.
Lara makes it clear she knows that not all handicaps are visible. She makes it clear she knows that regular movie patrons can develop a fondness for that row of seats that is oftentimes wide open. But right is right, and law — even spirit of the law — is law.
"More than anything," Lara said Tuesday, four days after the experience, "I just want to bring awareness to handicapped spaces and why they're important. Being able to sit next to your loved one at a thing like a movie is so important."