Sitting down to compose this post, I found myself unsure as to how to begin. I wanted to write a wrap-up of sorts of the 27th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, sponsored by CSUN, but I had not attended the event from the very first day. I thought others would be more likely to write a more thorough recap of the event. What could I contribute, having only attended the conference for three days?
In fact, I would not have attended at all were it not for the kindness of a stranger. Unable to find a room in the San Diego area, I realized I had waited too long to make a hotel reservation, and the nearest available room was almost fifteen minutes away from the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the conference venue. Tweeting my frustration to an online friend, I received a tweet from Elle Waters (@nethermind). "If you need a place to stay," she tweeted at me, "you can share my room."
"Are you kidding?" I tweeted back, incredulous. "How do you know I’m not a psycho killer?"
"I’m optimistic." Elle tweeted back. "I’ll send you all the info and my contact details."
True to her word, she did just that. With an extra bed in the room, Elle explained, it was no problem for her to share the space, and she left a room key for me at the front desk, enabling me to sleep in a far more preferable condition than on a bus bench or under an exhibit hall table.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I discerned immediately that the plane on which I traveled to San Diego could have easily landed directly into the lobby. it was so cavernous, so without landmarks, and so filled with the sounds of voices, cane tapping and assorted other hotel lobby sounds, each echoing around the interior space in a way that I found difficult to interpret for good navigation, I feared a very troublesome experience. I need not have been concerned.
Throughout my stay, I found myself lost many times. However, I barely went astray ten feet before someone at the hotel, either staff or volunteer, had redirected me with courtesy and professionalism. There was nowhere I could turn without an almost immediate inquiry as to whether or not I needed any assistance. I traveled from point A to point B in the hotel with surprising efficiency, and I did not find myself frustrated even once. Again, the kindness of strangers helped make my stay an enjoyable one.
This was my fourth CSUN conference on disability, my first since the move to San Diego. My first was probably around fifteen years ago. It was a very different event then, there was no Twitter or other social media to connect attendees in advance of the event, therefor the atmosphere felt very different. Since this was my first conference as a "tweep," I really felt a tremendous amount of anticipation to meet the strangers with whom I have been "tweeting" for years, but have never actually met in the ‘meatspace." I was excited about the opportunities, yet also a little anxious over the possibility that I might be the oldest person in the room. I wasn’t sure if now, all of the online technophiles were all under the age of twenty-five. Would I feel out of place?
Again, I need not have been concerned. Upon meeting many of my Twitter contacts, I was delighted to realize that the vast majority of them thought of me as a friend, not a stranger, and it felt more like "old home week," than a collection of strangers uncomfortably ignoring each other in an elevator. I was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm, some seemed genuinely glad to meet me in person, I was invited here and there and everywhere for socializing and education, and even individuals whom I have regarded with a certain amount of awe were cordial, engaged, even affectionate. My head was spinning. The last thing I expected was to be treated like I was welcome, valued, and interesting. These were no strangers, as it turned out.
For many years, one of my own accessibility mantras has been that true accessibility is more than a mandate, it’s a mind-set. What makes any place accessible isn’t only the architectural enhancements, but the attitudinal ones. I have always believed that access is as much about excellent customer service as it is about wheelchair ramps or Braille dots. Yes, the educational sessions were brilliant, the technology was fascinating, and the weather was superb, but it was the people with whom I interacted at the CSUN conference that made it the ultimate accessible, user experience.
Thank you to all whom I met at the event, all of those strangers who will never be strangers again.