After all my talk of taking self-care on the road, I had to do it for real this last weekend. Some of you know I’ve been “down” for about 8 months, having severely injured my knee back in September. Thanks to some excellent physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture, I’ve been coming back slowly and trying to shed the 20 pounds I packed on while I wasn’t able to move well.
Going vegan has helped with that, but as any vegan knows, there’s plenty of plant-based junk food available to us. Last weekend I attended VegExpo, a vegan event not unlike the “cons” for the sci-fi crowd. You know the drill, rows of booths and an area where speakers are scheduled throughout the day. Attendees wear their best preachy t-shirts instead of dressing up as their favorite characters.
I’m not going to be a vegan evangelist today, I’m going to pick apart the event and how ableist it was, and suggest how they could do better. I’m going to send them a link to this post as a challenge.
Let’s begin with the venue. It was held at the Vancouver Convention Center, a double-platinum-LEED-certified showpiece of sustainable architecture. Sculptures out front are made of solar panels to help power the building. The roof is covered with grass, lending a parklike feel to an otherwise industrial waterfront. Recycled water is used in the toilets. The inside walls are paneled with a mosaic of sawmill trim ends (waste wood). As an environmental permitting consultant, I was excited to have an excuse to go inside that flagship building.
The web site photos for the venue show the huge, naturally lit lobby furnished with scattered arrangements of chairs, sofas and low tables around the perimeter. Every last one of these was removed for VegExpo. In their place, there was a maze made of those roll-up barriers they use at airport security to make the line move in orderly rows. Google tells me they’re called “guidance stanchions.” The crowd of thousands had to line up and walk the labyrinth before we could get on the long escalator that seemed like it went 3 stories down. I wasn’t able to scoot down the stairs like the others (apparently the high-speed escalator wasn’t fast enough), so I pinned myself to one side while they stampeded past. It was a case of hurry-up-and-wait—there was another long line at the entry to the exhibition hall. This line was not anticipated, therefore it was not managed. We had to pick up empty grocery bags for our purchases, donated by Choices Market. I had brought my own bag, but I forgot it in my bike bag and there was no way I was going back through the gauntlet to get it. By the time I had my new bag in hand, I’d already exhausted my standing tolerance and hadn’t even found my friend Ellen yet. The speaker area in was in the far back of the exhibit hall and it was already so crowded, it took me twenty minutes to shove my way back there. There were maybe 150 chairs set up; almost all of them were filled and people stood around the perimeter five deep. I found a chair in the middle and awkwardly stumbled my way in like you do at the movies. There I texted Ellen, and she and our other friend Jane came to meet up. It took them twenty minutes to get there through the crowd, so I was somewhat rested and able to begin cruising the booths with them.
I don’t think the event planners were prepared for the size of the crowd that came. It would have made sense to stop selling tickets at some point, but of course that didn’t happen; who is going to turn away more money? I would be amazed if we were within the legal occupancy limit for that room. By the time we worked our way back to the entry side, I needed a sit break again and had to go all the way back. My spine was screaming but my bum knee was still doing all right. I followed this routine for the next four hours, twice using the washroom to rest on a toilet when a chair wasn’t available in the seating area.
The layout of the event could have been made more hospitable for people with disabilities by using some of the “guidance stanchions” they were so fond of upstairs to create directional travel lanes between the booth rows for people using wheelchairs or walking aids, or people like us who would have the option of claiming disability status at registration. Seating clusters could have been provided within the selling floor. There were so many things they could have done that might have sacrificed a few square feet of vending space, but they could have expanded the event into another exhibit hall to allow for more of that.
I saw a few people with wheelchairs and hand crutches and one woman in a chemo headscarf; most of them took refuge in the seating area while their companions shopped the booths. It would have been impossible to navigate those aisles in a wheelchair. It’s beyond me how they even got to the back of the room! I saw a few parents weaponize their baby strollers in order to push through the crowd, but this being Canada, most just inched along without getting much of anywhere. In the one place that offered mealtime seating, there were picnic tables (the bane of people like me; I have to have seating with a back).
We were able to leave the event and go back in, but with all the seating removed from the upstairs and downstairs atriums, the nearest seating of any kind was at least a half mile walk from the exhibition hall. Jane left after about two hours; Ellen and I made it four. I don’t know how I made it that long! I got my bike from the racks outside, relieved to find my panniers unmolested (how is there no bag check in a world-class convention center?), and took a sit break on a concrete wall before mounting up and starting the 21-kilometer ride back to the hostel along the flat waterfront bikeway.
It only took me a few minutes of riding to realize how deeply exhausted I was. It didn’t help that it was a perfect crystal blue spring day and the entire city had flocked to their miles of public access beaches. I avoided several near-collisions with inexperienced bike riders. I stopped to eat on the way back but didn’t really reconstitute until I took a nap back at the hostel. Then I summoned the energy to go to the beach and soak my knee in the cold sea water before going to bed at 8 PM. It was all I could do to pack up and leave the hostel the next day, but I was home by lunchtime because I got up from my bunk in pain at 6 AM.
When I got home, I watched a video about the Vancouver Convention Center that showed the arrangements of tables and chairs in the atriums. I thought about the event, and how, between the venue and the event itself, I really did have the right to expect more progressive and inclusive event planning. It was heartening to see so many faces of color both in the crowd and on the speaking stage, but it was still an extremely ableist event. I’ve called upon them to do better, and I hope you will do the same in your world and share your results. They won’t think about us until we demand it.