Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Affect: Access and acceptance

I mentioned Monday that Congress worked to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act in September. The month is fixed in my mind because right after reading about HR 620, I was able to experience its exact opposite. I attended Affect.

I helped with setup and take-down, which helped me notice some of the accommodations more.

I think the starting location was helpful. A facility building for the adjacent First Unitarian church, the Eliot Center already had ramps, push buttons for the door, and bathrooms that specified that male and female included male-identifying and female-identifying.

Affect went beyond that. Every pathway and corner was tested with a mobility device and marked out with tape so that no tables or chairs would accidentally block the way. Chairs were sturdy but also armless, and rows were set up far enough apart that you didn't have to feel trapped if you were sitting in the middle. I saw people with walkers able to arrange chairs comfortably, and I also saw people set up around the back windows with cushions.

There were ASL interpreters and live captioning, because maybe some people are hard of hearing but don't know ASL, but if you do know ASL you will probably follow along better that way.

Not all of the accessibility related to disabilities. Signs were placed over the already more-welcoming-than-usual bathroom signs to specify that they were for all genders, along with a single person bathroom. Not everyone identifies as male or female. There were pronoun stickers that you could take and put next to your name.

I initially did not take one. It felt unnecessary, like maybe it would be in bad taste to trumpet my Cis-ness. After a discussion with two non-binary people I changed my mind. We didn't really even talk about that. (We were talking about the pressure imposed by gender constructs, and how they cause a lot of harm even for Cisgender people.) Still, after talking, it felt like me using the sticker could make it easier for others for whom it was helpful.

That would have been a lot, but there was so much more.

There were some snacks provided. For everything there were vegetarian, gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free options. Information on restaurants that could meet those needs was also available.

In the bathrooms there were baskets with sundries like moist wipes, tissues, gum and a freshening spray.

There was a quiet room. That can be a lifesaver for people with sensory issues, but it can be pretty great for anyone who needs some quiet time.

There were color-coded lanyards for whether it was okay or not to be photographed, or whether you wanted to be asked first. That's not just about liking how you look or not; there can be safety and privacy issues as well. This way honored consent but without making it burdensome for the photographer or creating awkwardness with constant questions. It worked great.

Also preventing awkwardness, there were clear signs pointing to everything.

There were reminders to follow the Pac-man rule, that when you stand in groups you leave room for someone else to join. I had never heard of it before, but it worked.

There were reminders of the harassment policy, but also there were two contacts, with three different ways of contacting them, to prevent making reporting an obstacle.

There were reminders before almost every presentation that it is okay to excuse yourself if you need a break. Some of the presentations were pretty intense. I don't know if any of the attendees had PTSD, but that need was anticipated.

There was concern for financial needs too. Childcare was available. That can relieve a huge burden. All speakers had travel covered and were paid an honorarium. Working for social good does not tend to pay well; this is huge.

All of these service have costs, so there were sponsorships but also there was a fee for attending. There were also scholarships available, and free attendance for volunteers. That is where my story comes in.

I found out about the conference because I saw that Sydette Harry - whom I adore - was going to be there as the opening keynote speaker. I really wanted to go.

I could not afford the fee, and the scholarships were all taken, but there were still some volunteer opportunities and I applied for one of those, which I think was also already taken by the time it was received.

They wrote back with another option, live tweeting the conference from my phone. That would be a wonderful offer for almost anyone, but not only have I never had data on my phone, but on the day of the conference my phone was shut off for non-payment. They offered that I could help with setup and take-down if I was comfortable with that, which I jumped at.

(I understood that the reference to comfort was in case there was a physical ability issue, but I should also add all of the really heavy work was done by the facility or hired people.)

I did feel like it was a pity gesture, which I was willing to take. After I saw how much consideration was put into so many potential needs, I could recognize it as more compassion. I needed it, because I was a mess.

The combination of care giving and poverty and family stress is never great, but that weekend was especially bad; worse when I discovered that my phone wasn't working. I didn't know how many straws I had left, and whether the last one would make me collapse or explode.

There was so much kindness there, and it was okay to be me. Knowing that it was safe to leave a presentation at any time meant that it was safe to stay, even if some of the content might be hard. When the content was hard (because trying to make the world better requires facing its worst), then there was a break, and there was a quiet room I could go to and recover.

There was great strength available there. A lot of it would have been there anyway, but making room for weakness and tiredness increased that strength.

Imagine a world that tried to make everyone welcome, and let them find their strengths.

Imagine what we could be.

No comments: