Recently returned to the Motherland from a long weekend away in a couple of Nordic countries. I spent much of my time there preparing for a conference presentation, giving a conference presentation, hearing some really excellent and exciting presentations, and then madly finishing a grant application with tedious stipulations. In short: work, work, work. I have essentially two photographs of Stockholm. One of the old city:
And then this one, which was my view for two days from inside the conference:
(PS-Thank god for Swedish coffee.)
I must say this for Sweden and Finland: both countries are really pretty accessible for both folks with walking aids and wheelchair users. It was such a nice treat to visit two countries that actually do care about the quality of the lives their citizens lead. You have not only a right to access, but also reasonably comfortable access. Imagine! Wish I could say the same for my own home country, but again, I digress.
Anyway, I wanted to focus on something particular to the Aided Mobility experience that made the whole work-conference thing slightly more stressful than I ever experienced it in my unaided academic past: unintentional social isolation.
Here’s the thing: A Swedish building might be accessible, with smooth floors and ultra-modern lifts. This however, does not mean that the seating in a particular auditorium or lecture hall will be all that accessible. If in my unaided life crawling over seats and spectators to reach a spot in the middle of a row was a precarious operation at best, it is now, with the Evil Aid, utterly impossible. I can’t crawl over anything without tripping, falling, and becoming the spectacle. Also, there is the ever present issue of “Where the heck to do you put the Evil Aid?” Best I can tell, it is always in the way. There is never any good place to stash it. You lean it, it falls. You lean it, it blocks someone’s view. You lean it at an angle, it trips someone. You put it flat on the floor, it gets dirty (or really dirty depending on the floor). I found myself, during the course of this conference confining myself to end-row seats at the very front of the auditorium, since I could A.) Access this area without negotiating stairs B.) Not have to crawl over anyone C.) Usually find a reasonably out of the way place to stash the aid. That was all well and good, but you know what? It turns out that end-row seats at the very front of an auditorium are pretty unpopular, and for good reason. It is harder to get a good, wide angle view of what’s being shown, and as a result no one wants to sit there. So this means that you, the Aided Mobilizer, end up sitting alone. For two days, during a conference that like all conferences was at least in part organized for the sake of networking. There is no other way to describe it expect to say that it is a major bummer. I won’t go into too much detail about the other actual networking opportunities such as our cafeteria lunches and dinners, expect to say that it turns out dishes and trays in Swedish cafeterias are heavier and of a much higher quality than there Russian counterparts, which is a BAD thing for the Aided Mobilizer. You know, I have just about figured out exactly which dishes I can safely carry with one hand here in my Russian university’s stolovaya, but in the Swedish version, I was totally thrown off and either hungary or annoying, because I had to keep going back to the buffet line for something else, and due to a mostly inaccessible seating arrangement in the cafeteria, had to either crawl over people and/or pick my way precariously around the lunchroom while balancing something in one hand to do so. Also, again in the cafeteria and at our end of conference dinner the only accessible places to sit where at the ends of tables that were somewhat isolated from the majority of the conference crowd. As my friend D., who recently finished conducting his research in Nantes says, “Le sigh.” Here’s something though that non-Aided Mobilizer academics might find useful: If you see someone with an aid or in a wheelchair sitting alone at a conference, just know that there is a very good chance that she isn’t sitting alone because she wants privacy or personal space. She’s probably sitting alone because the isolated spot is her only accessible option. Go and sit next to her. Talk to her. Share our research. Both of you will benefit. That is after all what conferences are for: exchange and network building, for all.