Planning Accessible Events

By: Emily Smith Beitiks

The Longmore Institute recently hosted a panel and reception honoring the work of Paul K. Longmore (in case you missed it, you can watch the captioned video here). Leading up to the event, my mind was rushing with all the things to keep track of: adequate space for wheelchair riders that doesn't block the path but also doesn't quarantine them to one section of the room; tracking down the comments from all the speakers to give to the captioners; directions and signage that clearly lead attendees to the event, preventing attendees from accidentally ending up in the Westfield mall, the Bermuda triangle of consumerism. Now that we've planned a few events that strive for maximum accessibility, we like to think we're getting the hang of it, but the concern is still always lurking: if we can't put on an accessible event, what right do we have to ask it of other events and organizations?

Much to our delight, nearly eighty people of all shapes and sizes quickly filled the room. In fact, it was so packed that we rushed to put out additional chairs [an accommodation for the leg users who did not bring their own], spilling into the open space we had reserved for the reception.

The panel was deeply emotional, filled with both laughter and sorrow as close friends and colleagues shared their memories of Paul Longmore. While the panelists were speaking, Longmore Institute friend and supporter Corbett O'Toole passed me a note. Since she has already saved us from many unanticipated pitfalls of inaccessibility, I immediately unfolded the note with a sense of foreboding. The note read: "I'm concerned about these chairs in the back. You don't want anything in the way of a crip and their food and wine." Grateful, we whisked away the chairs the moment the panel ended, and whew, our refreshments were accessible for all.

I offer these behind-the-scenes moments for they illustrate an important lesson that often gets neglected when we talk about access for people with disabilities: thinking about access only gets you half way there. To go the rest of the way, you must also think about culture. Many have argued that disabled people have a culture, just like other minority groups (the institute's founder Paul Longmore liked to say that this culture even involves a cuisine: fast food!). Corbett's friendly reminder - this crowd will not be shy about grabbing those hors d’oeurves you're offering, so plan accordingly! - provided yet another example to back this up.

As we continue to push our events to make each one more accessible than the last, may they also be supportive of and contributing to disability culture.