Florence Michel and her boyfriend were looking forward to a night out at the movies, and perhaps hoping that the film they were going to see would spark a debate. Michel, a 45-year-old Parisian teacher and avid film buff, takes in up to three movies a week and prefers the kind of challenging art-house fare that can be enjoyed as much during the discussion afterward as in the theater. She had chosen Polissons et Galipettes, a compilation of vintage French blue movies. Art or pornography? That's a question neither Michel nor her boyfriend had the opportunity to discuss that August evening in 2002 because Michel, who suffers from brittle-bone disease and gets around in a wheelchair, was barred by a cinema employee from entering the MK2 Beaubourg theater next to the Pompidou Center.
The discussion that did ensue was about access rights for people with disabilities. And Michel is taking her case all the way to the French courts by suing the MK2 movie theater chain for discrimination. According to MK2 general director Philippe Aigle, a commission set up under the auspices of the French Interior Ministry instructed the firm in 2002 not to admit wheelchair users for safety reasons. The staffer refused Michel entry, Aigle says, for her and other patrons' safety in the event of an emergency, where a wheelchair could impede a quick exit: "Safety is an essential concern, and if there is a fire in a [an error occurred while processing this directive] theater or other sudden hazard, speed of exiting is our first responsibility." But Michel alleges that she's been discriminated against because of her disability. "What if someone was refused access to a nightclub just because of the color of his skin?" she asks. "How is this different?"
Michel is far from alone in demanding better treatment for Europe's estimated 50 million disabled people. The Continent lags behind much of the developed world in accommodating people with impaired mobility. They find themselves blocked from entering airports, buildings, buses, restaurants, subways, toilets and trains. And in the future, ever more people will experience these frustrations as Europe's elderly, many of whom suffer age-related limits on mobility, increase from 16% of the population today to 21% in 2025. By contrast, disabled access in the U.S. has advanced significantly since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against disabled people and guarantee access to public buildings. "It's obvious we have to do something now because we are very much behind other countries, notably the Nordic countries and the U.S.," says Jean-François Chossy, a deputy in France's National Assembly, who sponsored a bill in February that prevented the deadline for disabled access from being extended beyond 10 years. "We are very late."