ART IN TRANSITION
BY SUE DESALVATORE
GETTING THE MOST FROM A CONFERENCE
The inspiration for this month's article came from ongoing online conversations I had with Maggie Maggio, regarding Muse 2001. She was exceptionally helpful and concerned that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in any conferences or retreats.
Campus selection is a difficult part of planning any conference. The coordinator must take into account issues such as location, price, size, number of rooms, and then must second guess where people would like to spend their precious few art days away from home. The final selection may appear to have a number of factors going against a handicapped person, but realize the campus selection was made to meet the needs of the majority of participants. If you cannot meet the conference coordinator halfway on your special needs, then perhaps you need to seek out a different conference.
One of the wonderful things about art conferences is that they are often located in areas of great scenic beauty. With this, however, comes the inevitable campus grounds which have broken sidewalks, subtle outside lighting, and inclement weather. This can make mobility very dangerous for people with physical or visual challenges, especially at night.
If the environment is challenging, I appreciate being informed in advance so I can bring special lighting or make "chaperone" arrangements. Seating accommodations are simple, and can be provided by the program coordinator or by the participant, himself or herself. Just be certain this duty is clearly understood by everyone involved before the participant arrives on the first day. It helps to have higher tables that can accommodate the arms of a wheelchair. PVC lifters or cinder blocks are inexpensive and unobtrusive and solve the problem in no time.
Buffet meals are lots of fun, but it can be hard to balance a drink, a plate, and silverware while looking for a table and then moving the chair that is already there. At one fiber forum, a great busboy was "assigned" to me to be certain no undue attention came my way via flying food.
Ideally, conference registration forms would inquire if special accommodations are needed. There will always be people who take advantage of this offer, just as there are people who use others' handicap parking placards. However, reasonable accommodation not only helps the person with special needs but also certainly helps all participants in the class. The more accessible the classroom, the less I have to disrupt others.
Having these needs met in advance results in fewer misunderstandings in the long run. Be sure to fully outline your needs, such as seating, extension cords, ventilation issues, extra space should you be allowed to bring your own pasta roller and/or buffer, physical accessibility or other reasonable requests. If the form doesn't ask for such information, call the coordinator and fully discuss your situation. A clear understanding of your needs and their ability to help meet those needs will avoid expensive mistakes and awkward interactions.
I feel it is the responsibility of the person requesting special accommodations to be certain all requests are met prior to the first day of class. It should not be the instructor's responsibility inasmuch as he/she has plenty of other distractions on that first day.
Oftentimes, the classrooms are up a few steps, some up a full flight of stairs. It is always nice to have someone available to help arrange and unpack my boxes as well as move them from my car to the classroom. Before class actually begins, it is your responsibility to be certain your requests for reasonable accommodations have been met. If they have not, politely inquire with the facilities manager or the conference coordinator. Just remember, if you didn't request it in advance, and it wasn't agreed upon, it really isn't fair to be asking for lots of personal attention once the conference begins.
A nice feature for people with any handicap is to have a "reserved seat" at the classroom worktables. I find that when I don't have to "run from the gate" with all the other people looking for the "best" seat, it works out better for all. If I am to provide table risers, having a reserved seat gives me time to have those put up, provided the facility will send someone over to help.
People with physical, visual, or hearing disabilities really need to face the instructor. These people cannot see, hear, or turn around well enough to get the entire lecture or demo. Being located near community use equipment such as buffers or ovens can eliminate repeated trips to the oven. If everyone needs to scoot out of the way each time a visually or physically handicapped person has to make his or her way through the room to the community equipment, it can really get on everyone's nerves.
When I can preselect my location, I can best assure that my chair won't get in their way, my extra extension cords (for my own buffing wheel, heating pad, and pain management equipment) don't cause a hazard to others, and I don't have to repeatedly ask others to move their stuff to accommodate the girth of my chair and its cranky occupant.
The importance of seating assignments was a lesson learned the hard way. At a recent conference, I innocently annoyed a woman who had sneaked in the night before to get what she thought was the best seat. It seems she had planned on putting her supplies on top of the heater, which looked like extra storage space to her. I arrived the same day, and went to the classroom to deposit my boxes in a place I had determined to be the location in which I would be safe, out of others' way and could get the most from the class. I inadvertently selected "her" space, not realizing that the pair of scissors left there was intended to mark her spot. After all, who would be childish enough to race for the best location? Hadn't even occurred to me.
I moved her scissors and put my things there. When she arrived at the class, it became quite a scene. The instructor had to intervene with this woman, who was clearly put out that she had been relocated. She was so adamant that she actually quoted how much she had paid for airfare, which meant that she paid more for the conference and deserved THAT seat.
Everyone in the class was very embarrassed, the instructor was put in a terrible position and the poor woman who had organized the event kept apologizing and falling over herself trying to "make it right" for everyone concerned. The irony of the story is that this woman was asked by the facility manager to remove her belongings from the heater area because the thermostat was preprogrammed and could not be turned off. While we sat in climate controlled comfort, she spent the next three days perspiring and cursing profusely.
FIRST DAY OF CLASS:
I suggest that you discretely introduce yourself to the instructor. Describe your situation to avoid any misunderstandings. Explain that you have made accommodations to best benefit from the class, and that there should not be other accommodations that you know of. At one conference in which my disability was rather well disguised, the instructor yanked me up, by my arm, from my seat to participate in a demonstration. I couldn't use my arm the next day. Another participant needed to excuse herself frequently for a "nature call." Unknowingly, the instructor thought she was bored and disinterested in the class. A participant who was significantly visually impaired was asked to describe what was on the slide screen, and reluctantly guessed herself into an embarrassing situation. While these scenarios may seem extreme, they are true and could easily have been avoided with a little clear communication.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate a few points. If you believe you need special accommodations, keep them reasonable. If they are too difficult to be met, consider another conference. Clearly define your needs in advance, before putting any money down on a registration fee. Do all you can to help the facility meet your needs, and do it in advance. If you have an unanticipated need arise, politely and discretely ask for assistance. Do what you can to avoid breaking the momentum of the class dynamics. Also, do what you can to help others meet their special needs. A little concession goes a long way.
A survey of handicaps and unmet special needs accommodations.