by Katherine Wright
photography courtesy of Pexels
The Prospector Theater is a small, non-profit organization in Ridgefield, Connecticut, aimed at “providing meaningful employment to people with disabilities.” Filled with exciting amenities—the sparkly wall, the ceiling of stars, the café with homemade baked goods—this theater is undeniably an amazing place. But it goes so much farther than its unique and lively atmosphere. It is the beloved theater of my hometown, and every visit there leaves me feeling enchanted, inspired and hopeful. Enchanted by the undeniable sense of community. Inspired by the energy and purpose that comes from passionate work. Hopeful that progress is here to stay.
The Prospector has provided its employees—around 70% of whom identify with a disability—the opportunity to develop meaningful experiences in the workforce. They are changing lives and setting an example for future companies to follow. The wide range of services the theater provides is a testament to the depth of experience gained by employees but also to the failure of our society in creating accessible work environments.
Despite comprising nearly a quarter of the American population, more than 80% of those with disabilities found themselves unemployed in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In its own way, The Prospector has provided a haven to a group marginalized by a culture that typically favors and caters to those who are able-bodied. In recognizing the error in this, we are able to empower one another to grow and learn. The need to create welcoming environments is not a small-scale or myopic one.
In many ways, this theater has opened my eyes to what can be done with just a small change in practice that is accepted as a matter of principle. The Prospector reinvented what it means to be a movie theater, going beyond mere popcorn and films. They have production teams, welcoming ushers, fresh baked goods. They value all kinds of skills, encouraging human development and fostering passion. They channeled their creativity to make something amazing for both the community and its employees. That is no small feat. The Prospector created meaningful work for those who have gone so long without it.
It’s the kind of place that just makes you feel good. Different than any other movie theater I have ever been to, it’s a community favorite for a reason. With fresh candy, reclining chairs, star-embedded ceilings, there’s no question you’re in an exciting, lively environment. But it’s truly the employees that make the Prospector Theater such an awesome place.
For instance, before every movie showing, they show entertaining, powerful and inspiring original videos created by the employees. Some lay out the rules of the theater in a lighthearted and creative fashion, while others detail the journeys and personal stories of those who work there and how the Prospector has done what should be a bare minimum everywhere: giving them a chance. A chance to find passion and excitement in meaningful work. A chance that everyone deserves.
Right before the movie officially begins, the assigned usher speaks to the crowd. He or she usually provides a short, often humorous introduction of the movie, a personal statement and thanks the audience for joining. It is a simple, powerful act that helps solidify the mission of the theater: uniting employees and customers as part of the solution.
I think I realize, then, why the Prospector makes me feel so good. In fact, it goes way beyond “good.” It makes me feel genuinely, powerfully inspired. The Prospector Theater is holding up a challenge to other organizations. Their success is living proof of the capabilities of disabled employees, active proof that other companies could experience similar successes. Their mission reveals the role companies have in the unemployment crisis amongst disabled people and the impact they could have on a person’s life and happiness.
At the end of the day, it comes down to a simple realization. We are all seeking passion and purposeful work. We want the ability to work in a welcoming environment, able to grow as a person without fear that someone is questioning our abilities. The unemployment crisis is systemic amongst disabled individuals and runs so much deeper than not being able to find a job or a steady income. It limits passion. It stifles creativity and skills. To seek employment to no avail is disheartening, defeating, ultimately destroying dreams and preventing progress. There is a need for accessibility that the rest of the world needs to adopt. Yes, that means having ramps and elevators available in public spaces and places of employment. But it also means providing accessible work opportunities. It means giving people the resources for a passionate, meaningful life.
This is why I keep coming back to The Prospector theater. It may just be one movie theater, but it represents something powerful. It is a symbol for the immense success and progress that can come if we give one another the chance to thrive. The theater itself is an explosion of creativity—filled with art and color and unique design—that symbolizes how humans can create something amazing when given the opportunity. Inside the café of the theater, you will see a ceiling filled with hand-placed pennies. They are all placed heads up, a mark, as The Prospector says, of “the feeling a person has when they walk with their head held high.”
Like I said, it enchants me every time.