When it comes to the state of disability access, one thing is for certain: we are an afterthought. It’s remarkable to think that with all the ingenuity in architecture and discussions about representation that disability continuously falls through the cracks. I’ve lived as a wheelchair user my whole life and never felt limited until I started working as a film critic.
No, the nature of writing and seeing movies isn’t a problem. But as any writer will tell you, a key component of this job is going to film festivals. Festivals aren’t purely a means of seeing a hot new release months in advance, but present networking opportunities and greater access to events and people that help us do our job. When I first seriously started writing I knew festivals would be great to attend, but they come with a wealth of problems for me.
Traveling with a disability doesn’t mean jumping on a plane and staying in whatever hotel you want. It requires advance planning, coordination. A wealth of questions pop up regarding accessibility that many events aren’t aware of. I do my due diligence, but I can only plan for so much. Up until now, my festival adventures were relegated to my home state, but earlier in March, I trekked to the wilds of Austin, Texas to attend SXSW. What happened was nothing short of a mess, a combination of miscommunication and a genuine lack of awareness about what disabled people need to know. Inviting those with disabilities is a step, but there’s still a lot to be done to make festivals more welcoming to disabled critics and attendees.
The Accessibility Guinea Pig
“You’re the guinea pig this year” is a statement I heard regularly from friends during SXSW. This is because, when asking friends and patrons at several festivals, they all admitted they’d never seen a disabled journalist attend. So when I started on this journey of showing whether festivals were accessible or not, I knew I was carving a new path. Last year, I made a point of calling two main festivals I’d been both warned and encouraged to test: Sundance and SXSW. I had conversations with each team, asking about their accessibility options and what they were doing to encourage not just disabled attendees, but disabled critics, to attend.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
What failed for me at SXSW involved many things which could have been mitigated by just providing better knowledge for the disabled. On the festival front, certain hotels weren’t connected to the event shuttle system, a fact I didn’t know about my particular hotel until I arrived, despite me telling numerous people associated with the festival where I was staying. It wasn’t until I revealed the actual physical address that it was discovered they were thinking of a different hotel. Uber and Lyft do come in handy, but with a wheelchair you’re often taking a gamble on whether a driver will be gentle with your wheelchair and you have to budget in extra time to get from Point A to Point B. SXSW did apologize for the error and provided tickets to screenings, but getting to that point required me to get incredibly angry.
Other issues weren’t SXSW’s fault, but could have been better communicated as to mitigate problems from arising. Case in point, the streets of Austin are difficult to navigate with a wheelchair – cracked and slanted roads, the occasional set of steps to wheel around, and long hills to go up and down. Add the proliferation of scooters flagrantly left in the crosswalks and it becomes an obstacle course. The shuttle system itself was fantastic, and many of the employees (a company contracted to work with SXSW) were incredibly understanding and knew exactly of the issues I was bringing up; they’d heard this before.
Too often, festival accessibility begins and ends with the theaters. The theaters are accessible and thus the festival itself is. Theater accessibility though has nothing to do with these events. Per the law in the United States, theaters are supposed to be accessible. What festivals need to do is look at the little things they probably don’t even think to notice.
The fact SXSW has a shuttle system is a massive coup. They took the time to hire a company and integrate these accessible cars into their fleet. Yet their accessibility page doesn’t list anything about which hotels aren’t associated with shuttle stops nor is there anything discussing the conditions of streets or the distance between theaters. Even just mentioning that certain theaters are retrofitted and thus might have steep entry and exit ramps (like Austin’s Paramount theater, where many major premieres are held) would help a person who is disabled be better prepared. (I actually had to have a companion with me anytime I was at the theater to help me.)
Disabled Liaison, the New Frontier
These problems arise because, too often, accessibility teams don’t employ or solicit the help of those with disabilities. If you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you change something? By actively hiring those with more knowledge. When I used to live in Sacramento, our local arena had a disabled liaison, a person whose sole responsibility was to help people with disabilities buy tickets and, more importantly, answer any and all questions about the venue’s accessibility. This person was an expert not just on seating locations but also the height of railings, ramps, and parking. Fun fact: about three years ago, that person was fired and now questions about disability go to a generic TicketMaster rep.
Why do festivals not employ a similar disabled liaison, someone who is the main point of contact for those with disabilities who, more importantly, understands their issues? Most accessibility team members are able-bodied and their knowledge, as we’ve seen, extends to the major things. Having a disabled liaison to specifically help those with minor issues would do a lot towards making people with disabilities comfortable to attend these events, safe in the fact that if something happens there’s someone whose job it is to fix it.
I hate being the guinea pig, but I know going to these events does far more than just give me access to movies. It helps me answer questions from disabled patrons or fledgling writers who want to go but believe they’ll be stranded somewhere. My job is to do the work so that, hopefully, others won’t have such a hard time. Now, it’s up to festivals to take the time to work with the disabled community, not run away.