Google tells me that the Los Angeles Convention Center is approximately 30 miles from Disneyland. In Southern California terms, that’s anywhere from one to three hours away by car, but when I attended L.A.’s recent Abilities Expo, you could have convinced me that I was rolling through Anaheim’s famed theme park.
Over the event’s three days, a record crowd overtook an empty hangar and transformed it into a raucous and bustling bazaar of all things disability, rivaling the world’s busiest markets — a diverse feast for the senses unlike anything found elsewhere.
I’d imagine the three-day whirlwind is overwhelming for even the most seasoned attendees, but as a first-timer I found it particularly hard to know where to focus.
By the time the hordes of attendees had filled the floor, banners hanging high above the rows of vendors served as the only indicator that any sort of order had ever existed. I was stationed at a booth somewhere near the center of the madness.
Groups of wheelchair users and scooter riders blocked the majority of the intersections between rows, while herds of occupational therapy students roamed from booth to booth, and intrepid solo attendees weaved their way through the occasional openings.
At the booth to my left, a gentleman and his wife demonstrated a device to help wheelchair users ascend and descend stairs. With a handsome suit and well-coiffed hair, he could have easily passed for an emcee or magician, and watching him effortlessly lift the dolly-like device he was peddling up and down the stairs, over and over again, I did begin to wonder if he was hypnotizing me.
Turning the other way, I was equally drawn in by the specter of a salesman showing off his indoor lift by raising himself up from a chair, over a few feet and down to the floor, only to then reverse the process and repeat. When a customer inquired, he’d engage, but for the majority of the three days he silently went about his business — up, over, down, repeat.
These were but two of the hundreds of exhibitors, all proudly displaying their wares and trying to convince you that your life would be better with their products in it. Every sort of bed, lift, wheelchair and accessible vehicle you can imagine was somewhere on the floor, waiting for you to test it. There were even leaf-guard gutters and a futuristic vacuum-like device for washing your hair.
That’s not even getting into the regularly scheduled events: all types of adaptive sports (para badminton, anyone?), a climbing wall with every adaptive aid you could dream up, and dance and music performances highlighting an endless array of abilities. At one point, over the din of the crowd, they even announced that a support wolf was prowling the premises (take that, Mickey Mouse!).
In one quadrant, an endless line waited for free wheelchair repairs next to a queue giddily anticipating the arrival of TV and internet star Zach Anner. Circles of friends commandeered some of the few open spaces to catch up, while newbies looked to the banners for guidance. Smiles and engaged faces abounded.
Other than one overtaxed elevator with a perpetual line, everything was incredibly accessible, and we were surrounded by people who just get it. Even if we weren’t officially at Disneyland, together we provided a pretty good template, should the park planners want to replace its Small World with something a little more accessible and, shall we say, less annoying? How about, Ability Land?