Mayo Beach Adaptive Camp likes to take their campers on field trips, just like most summer camps. This camp is for disabled children (from 6-21), their siblings, and friends. Camp Director Joe Mavo bought 140 tickets for his campers and staff (the ratio is one staff member to every three campers) to attend a summer movie at the Regal Waugh Chapel & IMAX in Maryland. He informed the theater that it was for special needs children.

The theater was happy to sell the tickets, but when the group showed up, they were turned away. At first, the line was that the theater was oversold and then a district manager said it was due to "liability."

Let's unpack all of this. The Capital Gazette talked with Joelle Ridgeway, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the county who said the problem was with the group size and not the members of the group. 

Regal Cinemas did not respond to the Capital Gazette and they didn't respond to me either. I called them when I learned about this on Saturday, and as of Tuesday morning, they haven't responded. I doubt the entire PR department is on vacation.

Here's why I think this is a case of unconscious bias and not an issue of liability at all. (Although, I admit, to not being a specialist in the area of liability.)

A full house is every theater's goal.

They are happy to fill up their theater--that's what movie theaters want to do. If they oversold (which, I'm sure, happens), then they should have issued profound apologies and allowed as many kids as possible to see the movie.

That didn't happen. They denied entry for the entire group. A district manager made the decision, citing "liability." That's not an oversold issue--if a full theater causes a liability then they should reduce the number of tickets sold.

This camp was better staffed than birthday parties who could attend.

A camp with a 1:3 staff/camper ration is going to be a much better-behaved group than 10 birthday parties with one mom supervising each group of 10 over-sugared 7-year-olds. Frankly, a 1:3 ratio is a dream for a cheap children's movie. Plus, this camp comes with a nurse. 

Having children, I've been to many children's movies and you're never going to get peace and quiet in an afternoon children's movie. It's just not happening. With a high staff to camper ratio, you can almost guarantee these are your dream campers.

Maybe the movie theater staff were jerks and this wasn't unconscious bias?

It's possible. But, I suspect if you asked any of the staff they would vehemently deny any such bias. Instead, they were concerned. This is definitely one way unconscious bias manifests. Rather than thinking, "I don't want special needs kids in my movie theater" you think, "I'm concerned about the disabled kids' safety!"

It's the same concern that keeps you from offering a job that requires travel to the mother of young children. You don't think, "women can't do this job!" you think, "she won't want to leave her kids, so why even ask?" 

This is where Kristen Pressner's tool, Flip it to Test it, comes into play. Flip the situation: Would you be concerned about another camp? No? Then this is your bias coming into play. 

Maybe the concern was over noise or disruption, which can, of course, happen with special needs kids. It also happens with every child based activity. It's okay to enforce rules and kick out a disruptive child (or adult), but make sure you double-check it by asking yourself if you'd treat a non-disabled child the same way. 

Here's how to do it right. 

While Regal didn't get back to my request, Studio Movie Grill got back to me. I contacted them because a friend sang their praises when it comes to special needs movies. A spokeswoman said:

We understand the challenges that families with children with special needs across our nation are faced with every day and we are committed to creating a safe space and a haven where families large and small, with special needs or not, can seek refuge and enjoy watching films as a family as we continue to open hearts and open minds, one story at a time.

They have programs in 32 theaters across 10 states to specifically meet the needs of special needs kids. They show that it's possible to treat everyone with respect.

Your staff needs to be trained to work with everyone who comes through your doors, regardless of ability.