Have you ever heard of the Abilities Expo? Have you ever wanted to go to one?
Abilities Expo ™ bills itself as ‘Inspirational, Unforgettable and Coming Your Way.’ It goes on to explain that ‘Abilities Expo is about bringing necessary products and services together under one roof for the community of people with disabilities, their families, caregivers, seniors, and healthcare professionals. It’s about introducing opportunities that can enrich your life….especially ones that you never knew were out there.’ Abilities Expo happens all over the United States in places such as LA, Chicago, DC, Houston, and Boston, as well as in Toronto, Canada. It has been going on for nearly 40 years, and, granted, I was not alive 40 years ago, but I am alive now and it was being held in my city so I went down to check it out. After all, it said ‘disabilities’, and I’m disabled, and I’m a member of the disability community. Therefore, Abilities Expo should be for me……right?
As it turns out, not so much.
Abilities Expo, I have learned in this and in the past few years, is not actually for everyone in the disability community. It is for a very small subset of the disability community: white wheelchair users with money. (I say white because, despite the diversity of my city and the disability community, I saw very few POC there, and very few POC in their printed advertised materials.) Although I am white, I am not a wheelchair user and like most people with disabilities, I live below the poverty line.
However, it should be noted here, Abilities Expo is free. FREE! Hey, can’t pass that up. All you had to do was register, answer some mildly-invasive personal questions (what is your disability? Gender? Age?) and get a plastic bracelet slapped on you before you entered. Although I did pre-register, I hate those bracelets – I always tear them to bits in hospitals – the line was long to check in and I didn’t feel like waiting and so my friend, Rae, and I bypassed the registration and just walked in – and found that nobody was checking the stupid bracelets anyway.
We walked down the first aisle, which had non profits on it. There were not nearly as many in previous years, and those that were there were places with significant endowments. Although I was unable to find out the rate to rent a booth from their website, a friend who used to exhibit there has told me that the cost, even for non-profits, is incredibly expensive, and you cannot possibly have the simplest exhibit for the three days for under $1000 dollars. Considering that they charge for things such as trash baskets and each individual folding chair, I am not surprised. So the real grass-roots organizations run by actual disabled people are not represented. This is very sad, as it is these organizations which are the heart of the disability community and deserve to be treated as such.
One thing that I always dislike is a hard sell. If I am going to spend money I am going to spend it wisely. I plan out my purchases, do research and always see if I can buy used first. Like the vast majority of PWD, I live on an extremely limited income. However, you would not know this by going to the Expo! In fact, their exhibitor webpage proudly touts the fact that the aggregate income of PWD in the US is over $1 trillion. That is a number so big I literally cannot conceive of it. However, I’m a great browser, and I was happy to browse some things and dream, until the sales pitches began to get more and more aggressive. At least twice, I had to flat-out tell people, “I live on a very limited income and this product is nice but there is no way I will ever possibly be able to afford it.” You would think that a company dealing with disabled people would know this? Apparently not.
One thing I did like was what I call the trick-or-treating aspect. You are given a reusable bag and you – okay, I – go around to all the booths with candy and get a piece. It’s exactly like trick or treating! The bonus is that if you forgot a snack and can’t pay for the overpriced junk at the concession stand, you can have candy instead. Luckily, I’ve been to the Expo before so came prepared with water and snacks.
The water is important, because unless you are a wheelchair user there are not that many places to sit. Since the booths have to pay to rent each individual chair, there are few chairs available among the exhibitor booths and if you want to talk to an exhibitor you have to stand there. My back was aching before we had gone all the way through. There is a large area with tables and chairs as well as a sort of staging area, but these were removed from the space with the booths.
One thing that made me sad as a non-wheelchair user was that there were various workshops and events going on throughout the day, but few of them applied to me. The main events included wheelchair skateboarding, wheelchair dancing, and power soccer. Although I appreciate that they were trying to showcase that people in wheelchairs can do physical activities and sports, it did ring faintly of the idea of the super-crip, the superhero who happens to use a wheelchair but who doesn’t let that stop him from doing anything. I know many people who use wheelchairs and the fact is, sometimes they do stop you from doing things, just as my autism stops me from doing things. I dislike the idea that a quiet, sedentary life cannot be equally as fulfilling as one where people do flips and tricks in customized, flashy sports chairs.
The workshops, no matter their subject matter, were all inaccessible to me. This is because they took place in a roped-off corner of the enormous exhibition hall, and despite the fact that they had CART, you were essentially still surrounded by the Expo. I honestly do not know how people paid attention to the slides and voices of the presenters when there was so much going on around them. Maybe you had to be really, really interested in the subject? All I know is that I wasn’t. The workshops on the day I went included things about wheelchair travel, horse therapy, and a new kind of physical therapy. On other days, medical marijuana, emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, and sleep issues were discussed. A number of the workshops were put on by people who wanted you to buy their product, service or therapy, although, since I did not actually go to any, I cannot comment on how strong their pitch was.
Of the floor space at the Expo, at least two-thirds of it was taken up by huge, shiny vans, fancy wheelchair ramps, new-fangled hoyer lifts, and bicycles for every person which probably cost more than most disabled people make in a year. The huge wheelchair conglomerates like Permobil and Braunability both had enormous displays. There were new vans with new lifts, new seating options, new everything. They had professionals in matching shirts trying to sell people on the idea that if they just bought this product, everything would be better.
There was a great exhibit by a nationally-known nonprofit, Easter Seals, on adaptive products and toys, some of which you could borrow through a lending library that they have, but other than that, there was very little you could access without having money. I mean, if I didn’t hate boats I might love to go on an accessible cruise, but the fact is that vacations are out of reach for the majority of disabled people. Abilities Expo isn’t showcasing abilities at all; it is showcasing things that the average disabled person cannot ever dream of affording.
As Rae said, looking at the bicycles, “I really want to try one, but it would just make me sad that I couldn’t afford it.” This, to me, was the crux of the problem with the Expo. It is not meant for your average disabled person. It is meant for a white, wealthy person in a wheelchair – and considering that there were two booths with new kinds of penile catheters and no women-specific booths at all, I suspect it is meant for men. And hey, what do you know: in the hierarchy of disability, white, cis, male wheelchair users are at the top. They are the ones leading many disability organizations. They are the ones in power. POC, GLBTQ, people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities – we are just not on the radar for this kind of thing, because when Americans think of disabled people, they think of Christopher Reeve. They don’t think of me, or others with invisible disabilities. The very lack of seating at the Expo brought this point home quite strongly.
So – Abilities Expo is coming to your area. Is it worth going? Well, if you have a kid in a wheelchair, I would say yes. This is because there are a *lot* of people on wheels there and it is a great chance to expose your kid to the idea that people like them grow up, have families, live and work in the community. There are also lots of other kids in wheelchairs, which can be wonderful if your kid doesn’t have any wheeling friends. The majority of adults in wheelchairs were happy to talk to kids and their parents and serve as role models.
I also think it is worth going if you use a wheelchair yourself or are going with a friend or family member who does. Some of the products, unattainable as they may be, are pretty darn cool, and there is nothing wrong with dreaming. But if you have an invisible disability? If you don’t know anyone else who is going? Save your spoons and skip it. The Expo is not made for you or me.