I Navigated SXSW on Crutches ... Here's How it Went
It was 4 days before South By Southwest, a tech conference we’d been waiting for all year, and I busted my knee indoor rock climbing. The verdict -- I had post-traumatic arthritis and had to be on crutches, keep my leg straight and not put any weight on it or stand for long periods of time. Would this make navigating SXSW difficult? Understatement of the year. But impossible? Never!
Now, I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought in-depth about how challenging life was for others with disabilities until I experienced it first hand. It was an eye-opener for sure, and not in a good way. I was pretty disappointed with SXSW and their handling or knowledge of disability access. But this post isn’t meant to just put them on blast. I do hope that speaking up about my experience will urge some action and make it more accessible and enjoyable for every type of person.
So here’s how it went …
Ok, so clearly the conference would be hard to navigate with limited mobility, but thankfully, I had Nammy. My business bestie vowed to be my seeing eye dog all throughout SXSW. Seriously, that was so noble! Everyone, get yourself a business bestie (businestie?) like mine, but not this one. This one is mine.
As soon as I got my diagnosis, I emailed SXSW (firstname.lastname@example.org) about my situation to figure out my options. They told me I would need an Accessibility badge and a companion wristband for Nammy, which I could pick up at registration. On day 1, we got to registration and were directed to the counter labeled ADA, where I got a badge with an ‘A’ on it. A for accessibility. Except, I didn’t know what that meant. I’m kinda new to this, guys. So I asked the woman manning the desk what disability access would allow me to do. She says, and I quote, "I don’t know". This is the only ADA desk out of the 20 counters in the room! If you’re sitting behind the desk, you should probably know.
That’s when we began our wild dance with the devil, aka “navigating SXSW on crutches!” Here are my takeaways:
After picking up our badges, we were on a mission to find out what the A for awesome meant. Nobody could give us a straight answer and would direct us to someone else in another room, at another desk, at the opposite end of the (very long) convention center. Oh, did I mention I was on crutches with old-lady arthritic pain? I did? Good, just checking. It was evident that the SXSW Volunteers did not know very much.
The SXSW staff was definitely way more knowledgeable. Volunteers were mostly kids helping man the doors and direct people to various rooms. Fine. But shouldn’t they be given basic training? Especially if there are only a handful of staff and thousands of volunteers?!
Scooters wouldn’t work for me because I couldn't bend my knee. I needed a wheelchair with the leg-extension thingy. There were no wheelchairs for rent at the convention center, only scooters for $35/day, which couldn't be taken out of the convention center. Not very helpful because you’re most likely in the convention center for just one session before having to jet off to another venue for the next session. Speaking of those other venues, there were no wheelchairs available anywhere. We found out that SXSW does not own or handle any wheelchairs or scooters. It’s all location-based.
No Standard Protocol for ADA
The sessions were spread out over various venues and almost every session had incredibly long lines. I couldn’t stand for too long (doctor’s orders), so I needed to know whether I could jump the line. But the lack of standard protocol meant that I had no idea whether I’d get into a session or not. It was always a gamble because the decision came down to either that particular venue or the person manning the door. If they were empathetic, they'd let me in. Otherwise, I was SOL.
For convention center ballroom events, a SXSW Staff member allowed us to wait in a separate area and enter without a line as long as we arrived reasonably early. I should point out that he did so begrudgingly and only after first sending us on a wild goose chase to find answers ourselves.
The Hilton had no provision for jumping the line, so we avoided sessions there. The Fairmont and Four Seasons were really accommodating, with designated seating within the room and waiting areas.
SXSW had some great after-hours parties, but again, not-so-great with the ADA.
The Interactive Track Opening Party was at Micheladas with a casual 1.5 hr wait before the party began. I was told I’d have to wait in line with no arrangement to sit anywhere, so I left. Basically, I couldn’t attend one of the biggest events because of a physical disability. Hmmm, doesn’t that sound like the opposite of everything the world is moving towards?
I have to give a shoutout to Stubbs, though, that hosted the Interactive Closing Party. They were fantastic. The bar even had a special ADA elevator and the staff escorted us to a separate ADA area where we able to watch Steve Aoki without getting pushed around. They really came through for me and my KneeBae.
Overall, SXSW was a challenging experience full of ups and downs. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation in the future, here are a few lessons learned:
HOW WE NAVIGATED AND WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- I put some badass miles on my crutches and I can tell ya, the city roads are NOT made for them. I’d recommend wearing sneakers if you do decide to brave it, though.
- Southside Trailer park (the food area) is unpaved and full of pebbles and other debris - definitely not ADA friendly and not suitable for crutches or wheelchairs. Thankfully, I had my companion, the Marlin to my Dory, who could pick up my food while I waited in the seating area.
- You really can’t jump any food lines. Not sure if people don’t understand or it’s just because they're rushing everywhere and hangry.
- Buy gel pads if you have the old school crutches. It is a Game Changer. It is $20 on Amazon.
- Carry a fanny pack or a cross-body bag if you don’t need a laptop. Makes it easier to reach for your wallet, etc.
- Stick your cell phone and business cards in your badge for easy access.
- Weather is as confusing as it gets. It’s windy, hot, and cold, so if you can wear loose pants, that’s best.
- Uber/Lyft are cheaper than pedicabs for close-by venues. Some pedicabs were nice enough to offer us free rides, though.
- Drinking is tricky if you need both crutches. So standing/sitting by a table is best. If you can switch to one crutch that would work as well. I had Nammy double-fisting a bunch of times -- she didn’t mind the party girl rager image.
- Bathrooms are tricky if you have to keep elevated. If you don’t have that worked out already, one trick that worked for me was leaning a crutch against the stall door and resting my foot on it to keep my leg elevated.
WHAT CAN SXSW DO BETTER?
- Educate all SXSW staff AND volunteers on all things ADA. Austin, You is Kind, You is Woke, You is Inclusive, but You is not always ADA accessible.
- Make arrangements for having scooters and wheelchairs at an affordable price that people can access for all the set dates. These should ideally be owned by you and not the event space, so they can be used at multiple venues.
- Have a standard protocol for ADA with regards to wait time and designated waiting and seating areas for people with all kinds of disabilities. And make this standard across EVERY official SXSW event regardless of location. And please, for the love of god, tell the disabled person what to expect on day 1.
- Make official SXSW party spaces like bars and conference rooms ADA friendly! It’s not rocket science.
There are a few more takeaways we talk about right here:
All in all, it was a great conference, but SXSW definitely has a long way to go in terms of making things more accessible. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am to not be permanently disabled, and to have a companion who could open doors, be my human shield in crowded areas, and to basically take care of my every need. But those who don’t have that luxury still deserve the chance to attend SXSW and reap the benefits like “unparalleled discovery, networking, and inspiration", especially at $1200 a ticket!