Exclusion at Inclusion Events

When an event talks about nothing but how inclusive it is abled people kind of assume that everyone is going to be accepted there. Often times for disabled people that’s not what happens though.

For disabled people a lot of things go into what is considered accessible and accessibility means something different for each and every person. Some of the general things ableds know about are things like ramps but there are things that people who don’t have disabilities don’t think about being accessibility features.

Most of you already know I’m a full time wheelchair user and a year and a half ago I moved to Tennessee. A few months after I moved here I attended a local festival for the first time. In the small town I grew up in we had a festival every summer and I was really excited to get the opportunity to get back into that. I love listening to live bands and as much as I don’t like large crowds, sometimes just hanging out outside can be really therapeutic for me.

The experience was eye opening and when I started talking to my local disabled friends I realized very quickly my story was not unique nor was it uncommon.

It was a two day festival and we spent a good portion of the first day looking for the so called disability tent. We couldn’t find it and eventually just decided to brave things on our own.

Now in no particular order here’s how that first day went.

My partner fell.

I got stuck and almost flipped several times.

I had two balloons tied to my chair that could have killed me (deathly latex allergy) by a worker who didn’t even speak to me as he put his hands on me. One of my friends was able to get them off of me while I held perfectly still and held my breath.

That friend then fell. Discussing it with her later she told me this wasn’t the first time she had fallen there.

The second day of the event we finally found the disability access tent. We asked about accessible seating for that night’s concert and were told he would hold a table for us even though we hadn’t requested it the day before like we were supposed to. I explained to him we couldn’t find the tent and he shrugged.

About an hour before the concert was supposed to start we made our way back to the tent to the area the man had said he would hold for us. There was now a large group of drunk people standing around it. I asked the guy what had happened. He shrugged and refused to help us. We ended up finding an open spot close to the stage and my partner stood with his walker behind me to keep me safe from the crowd that was closing in behind us. Why? Because when people are dancing and drunk they tend to slam into people like me and it is not a safe experience. I am at least two feet shorter than the average person. If people do not know I am there they easily can hurt me. The concert was awesome. But my issues with that weekend overshadowed the fun we had.

After the festival ended I vented my frustrations on Facebook and several of my local disabled friends said they’d had similar issues and they hadn’t gone because of them. Once I got on Twitter and dug around a little I found hundreds of disabled people all facing the same challenges worldwide.

A major accessibility issue that is often overlooked by ableds is grass. I am a manual wheelchair user and wheeling through grass, especially with the added wires laying everywhere that are a constant presence at places like that for obvious reasons, make it nearly impossible for me to get through grass by myself. If it’s wet and/or raining the increased energy needed to wheel plus getting mud all over my hands up to my elbows isn’t pleasant to deal with. For ableds, they may get mud on their shoes, for someone like me I need a shower afterwards. At least 60% of this festival was held in the grass and it rained that weekend. I had to wash my hands in a water fountain several times because I wasn’t going to eat or touch items that were for sale with muddy hands.

Grass can also be a big issue for people with mobility aids like canes and walkers. All it takes is one unseen hole or dip for someone to fall over and hurt themselves and the step off from cement to grass/dirt can be a total nightmare. Even just a small dip is enough to flip my wheelchair. Rocks and sticks also create trip hazards for people both walking and wheeling. My partner uses both a cane and a walker depending on where we are and like I said he fell at this event too. For me, if my tire hits uneven ground unexpectedly and I don’t correct it instantly I could flip and hurt myself. With Chiari a blow to the head or neck, even a minor one can be lethal. I also have a friend who’s visually impaired and what would be a simple stumble for an abled person could seriously injure her.

Curb cutouts either being missing or blocked off cause another issue. For a wheelchair user like me having the cutout fenced off as it was at this event, meant having to turn around, moving the opposite way of the crowd, through the crowd, to find an accessible route off of the sidewalk. I can not hop curbs by myself safely.

The reason I mention moving the opposite way in a crowd as important is because it is dangerous for a wheelchair user like me, or a person with a mobility aid, to be moving against a crowd. We can and often are tripped over, pushed down, shoved etc by people walking by. Personally I’ve been groped by people who have literally fallen on top of me in a crowd. Sometimes these people will apologize, more often than not though I am blamed for them falling on top of me. I have been called names, screamed at and been cursed at. Alcohol seems to raise these instances tenfold.

Another issue for disabled people with limited or no vision is maps. The few festivals that do have them often times do not have large print or Braille options. Which can lead to a person getting lost and confused in already unfamiliar territory.

There’s a term in the disability community called barrier free access and while I completely understand that some things are not going to be barrier free in the society that we currently live in, I really think abled people could lower those barriers with just a few minutes of thought into something. My goal when I attend an event is to be able to do so with as little help as possible. Things like ramps help with that goal but when I’m also met with those ramps being blocked off and a lot of grass/mud other obstacles the risks outweigh the benefits and more often than not I end up not being able to safely attend these events. The things I’ve mentioned in this post are just a few of the many physical issues a disabled person may have. I haven’t included the over-stimulation that also often goes with these events because that’s another post worth of information. I may or may not do another post like this about those things later.

Why try so hard to attend something that could potentially be so dangerous? Because I deserve to be able to have the same experiences as everyone else. Being disabled does not mean that I should just sit at home and do nothing in life and I’m not going to. With a few small changes these events don’t have to be so dangerous for disabled people and we don’t have to be excluded. All it takes is a little thought and some compassion and consideration to make things safe and inclusive for everyone. But for a lot of abled people these small changes are “too much” to ask and so they ignore us and we continue to get hurt and/or killed just trying to live our lives.

This year when the festival came I didn’t go. With my shoulder injury plus what I witnessed last year I knew safety was completely out of the question. I had discussed my issues shortly after the festival with some of the organizers and we had talked about ways to make things accessible but from what I was told about it this year not much had changed and I know I made the right decision to not go. If I have to advocate from the sidelines until things change then that’s what I’ll do., but I will not stop and I will not shut up until things change y’all.

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