Campaign Events, Accessibility & Disabled People: Interview with Sarah Blahovec and Laura Halvorson
Alice Wong and her co-partners Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan have been encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities as part of their activism with #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online campaign focused on disability issues this Presidential Election. As the Founder of the Disability Visibility Project™, Alice recently interviewed Sarah Blahovec and Laura Halvorson about their recent experiences at a rally in September. How can event planners and political campaigns improve the accessibility of their activities so that all people feel welcome, safe, and included?
Note: This is not an attack on a particular party or candidate. The opinions and views expressed are about a singular incident and not generalizable for all people with disabilities.
Describe briefly the event you attended, who it was organized by, the speakers featured at the event, where you were located, and the location of the event.
Laura: On Friday September 16th, Sarah and I attended a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) Hillary campaign event that was organized by the White House and held at George Mason University (GMU). Speakers included students at George Mason University, Congressman Bobby Scott, Congressman Gerry Connolly, First Lady Dorothy McAullife of Virginia, Interim Chairman of the DNC Donna Brazile, and First Lady Michelle Obama. Sarah and I were seated (Sarah in a chair and myself in my power wheelchair) in the front row of the ADA section which was “house left” of the stage.
Sarah: Laura and I attended a rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia featuring First Lady Michelle Obama on September 16th. This rally was coordinated by several groups: as it was for Hillary’s campaign, her campaign team was involved; the White House was involved along with the Secret Service; the DNC had a hand in it; and of course, GMU’s event staff was also involved…It was held in a building at GMU that was not specifically an event space like an arena, but more like a common area in a student building. It was a rather small space, and there were three floors above around the room where people were placed to watch the First Lady, as well as on the floor, where we were.
As politically engaged disabled people, what did you anticipate before you attended the event? Were you excited? What were your expectations?
Sarah: I was extremely excited for the event. As somebody who is invisibly disabled, I do not often attend events, as it is more difficult for me to get into ADA seating, and standing in line for hours and then in an auditorium is unfeasible and would put me in severe pain. Also, for someone with Crohn’s Disease that is out of remission, there is also the concern of a flare and a potential urgent need to access a restroom. As Laura is a wheelchair user and I attended with her, I had the opportunity to actually attend not just for myself, but to make sure that she didn’t have anybody accidentally disconnect her ventilator, which she told me had happened at a previous Hillary Clinton rally that had also taken place at George Mason University.
When we arrived, I was astounded by the line. I walked along the length of the line for about ten minutes and met Laura near the front, where we were allowed to form an ADA line with a few other disabled people. My expectations for the rally were that there would be a separate ADA line outside to go through security, and an ADA section that was physically well separated from the general audience.
Laura: Michelle Obama is known for giving great speeches so I was excited to see her speak in person as well as the other speakers. I anticipated it to be a large crowd and from the last time I attended a rally at GMU I anticipated people in the crowd might get near my wheelchair and ventilator, which is a non-invasive mouthpiece ventilation system mounted on the back of my wheelchair. I made sure Sarah knew how to operate my machine and we both made sure to tell others in the ADA section to be mindful of my ventilator and to not get near my machine or bump into it. I even told a mom and her young son next to me that were on the side of my ventilator connection to be mindful and to help monitor others to not get near my machine. My expectations was that people in the ADA section would be understanding and respectful. It was also my expectation with the amount of volunteers and security there that someone would be monitoring the crowds in the ADA section.
Please share with me details of what happened to you both, what you experienced and observed and what happened afterward.
Sarah: Laura and I experienced a few problems. Prior to being let into the building, the ADA line had been stationed near trash cans. For nearly an hour, we were accosted by bees. As people with several medical sensitivities, this was concerning for us and for others in the ADA line. Laura seemed to be the biggest attraction for the bees, and they kept landing on her and her wheelchair, so we had to keep shooing them away. We asked organizers if we could move away from the trash can, and they would not let us do that. Luckily, nobody was stung, but the lack of flexibility to allow us to escape the bees was frustrating.
When we entered the rally space, the ADA section was on the left side of the stage (from the direction of facing the stage). Laura’s wheelchair was positioned right next to the “barrier” for the ADA section, which was a rope barrier. I was seated to her left, which concerned me, because her mouthpiece ventilator connection was on the right side of her wheelchair, and I was quickly boxed in by other attendees and couldn’t maneuver to be on the other side of her wheelchair to make sure that nobody would knock into it. However, we both told those around us about her ventilator and clearly asked people to make sure that they did not hit it. On Laura’s right, there was a woman with her young son and her baby in a stroller who we warned about the ventilator multiple times.
Prior to the rally and during the opening speakers, people continuously crossed the “barrier” for the ADA section to try to get to the restroom. To do this, they stepped within Laura’s personal space and over her wheelchair, which looked very uncomfortable and seemed very inappropriate.
The crowd crush incident happened after Michelle Obama was done speaking. FLOTUS came down from the stage on the opposite side and started working her way around to shake hands. During this time, pressure started forming around us from people who began to shift from the back and to the right of us to have the opportunity to shake FLOTUS’s hand. A woman cut between me and Laura almost immediately after the speech, making it more difficult for me to get next to her wheelchair and make sure that her ventilator didn’t get hit by the crowd. However, the crowd quickly became so packed that I was unable to move. On Laura’s right side, the crowd kept pushing into her wheelchair, especially the stroller of the woman with the infant and her son. I’m not sure what happened to the rope “barrier” between the ADA section and the crowd, but the crowd no longer paid any attention to it. People started pushing from behind me to try to get around or even over me to get near the First Lady, and both Laura and I started to feel extremely nervous from the intensity of the crowd. The young boy to Laura’s right began to push into her wheelchair controls, and the crowd on her right started to tip her wheelchair towards me. I had to lean across her wheelchair to try to put a counter pressure on the controls. At this time, we were both panicking and asking the crowd to please not push on Laura’s wheelchair, especially near her ventilator.
When FLOTUS was in front of us, people started climbing around and on top of me, and Laura was almost invisible in the crowd. I yelled to Secret Service, which was standing right in front of me, that we were being crushed and that Laura has a ventilator, but he ignored us, as he was preoccupied with the baby being handed to FLOTUS by the young boy. Around this time, Laura told me that her ventilator stopped working, so I yelled at the crowd behind her and tried to force myself around to the back of her wheelchair to hook the connection back up. At this time, a woman who identified herself as a nurse noticed that we were struggling and helped me to alert the crowd. Laura and I were both having panic attacks at this time, and the shaking make it more difficult for me to hook back up her ventilator. After I got it hooked back up, the nurse helped to make a pathway and push chairs out of the way so that Laura could back out. At this time, the woman with the infant and stroller hit Laura’s ventilator again with her backside and nearly unhooked the ventilator again.
Unfortunately, after we cleared the crowd our struggles were not over. Having a panic attack is a very overwhelming experience, and suddenly many of the people who had just been climbing on top of us to try to talk to FLOTUS began to hover around us and show concern, touching Laura without her permission. This only made it more difficult for us to regain our composure. We also received ableist comments, with Laura being called “brave” for coming to the rally as somebody with a visible disability and being called “the poor child in the wheelchair.” Meanwhile, these women came over to me and commended me apparently for no other reason than the fact that I was friends with someone in the wheelchair.
How did you process everything afterward? How do you feel now that it’s been several days? Are you taking any next steps on speaking out about what happened?
Laura: It took me a while to de-escalate from my panic attack. I am glad someone suggested that we talk to the person in charge of ADA accessibility for the DNC. He agreed to set up a conference call with the both of us and informed us prior to contacting him that he was already alerted about the situation and started to take action. The first action being making sure organizers at future events know to put a bike rack or similar barrier between the standing room and the ADA sections. He informed us that the ADA section at the event was on the wrong side and was supposed to be on “house right” of the stage to prevent other people from rushing into the ADA section to try and meet the speakers. He said at the next Michelle Obama event in Philadelphia will have the ADA section on the right side of the stage and a bike rack barrier will be in place to keep people from sneaking into the ADA section. I have contacted people in Philadelphia to attend the event and critique the event and am eager to hear back from them on what they experienced.
Sarah: After the incident, I was both very frightened and very frustrated by our experience. We were very close to a situation in which Laura’s wheelchair could have tipped over and injured both of us and the crowd, or a situation where I could not access her ventilator to hook it back up. After settling down, we discussed writing a letter to explain our experiences to the DNC and ask for safety changes for the ADA section at rallies. Laura and I sent a joint letter explaining our experience and calling for specific changes to improve rally safety.
The letter contained comprehensive details about what we experienced, which we wrote down the same day, along with specific recommendations on improvements the DNC and other event organizers could make to ensure the safety of attendees with and without disabilities. Here is an excerpt of our letter:
We are not sure whether we will ever be comfortable with attending a rally again after this experience. Being crushed and smothered by people who are more focused on shaking a politician’s hand than ensuring that fellow crowd members aren’t physically harmed was a demoralizing and traumatizing experience. Those in ADA seating, especially those with life-sustaining equipment like ventilators and costly, personal mobility devices like electric wheelchairs, shouldn’t have to weigh whether it is safe for them to attend a political rally, something which should be an exciting, engaging part of our political process. However, while we may never subject ourselves to this again, we feel a personal responsibility to other disabled people to fight for their safety and ability to participate in these types of events. What we experienced was unacceptable and could easily have been more disastrous, and the DNC needs to hold itself accountable, make changes, and ensure safety for all event attendees in the future.
Can you elaborate on the difficulties that people with disabilities face in events like this and why access is so important?
Sarah: After this experience, I am not interested in attending a political rally any time soon. While I know that rallies can be chaotic due to the enthusiasm of the crowd, it was truly terrifying to be in a situation where we couldn’t move, where people were climbing over us, and where we could have both been injured. The most disheartening aspect for me was the fact that people showed absolutely no concern about putting other people in danger because they were too fixated on shaking a politician’s hand.
I do not want my experience to discourage people with disabilities from attending rallies, as these are an exciting part of the political process. However, it is frustrating to have to weigh whether it is safe for someone with life-sustaining medical equipment or mobility devices to be able to attend these events. It is frustrating to wonder whether your safety will be at risk as an invisibly disabled attendee who is affected by chronic pain and fatigue. It is absolutely vital that the organizations and people involved in organizing these events make safety changes so that people with disabilities are able to safely participate in rallies. Nobody should have to let their disability status dictate whether they can participate in political rallies.
Laura: Although DNC rallies appear to be leaps and bounds safer and more accessible than Trump and other former Republican, and 3rd party rallies, this will likely be the last rally I attend unless I hear from others with disabilities with similar needs as myself that these proposed protections are in place. Thankfully most rallies are available on live stream I will watch from the comfort of my own computer where I don’t have to worry about people in the crowd disregarding the safety of others just to get near a candidate or representative. This is unfortunate because people with disabilities are the largest voting minority in the country that also intersects with many other minority statuses.
For any event planner, what are some of your recommendations on accessibility and crowd control? Any other overall message you want to share with campaigns from all political parties?
Laura: Make sure your event is accessible to all types of disabilities, whether it’s a physical, cognitive, invisible, hearing, sensory, vision or disability of any need. We face enough disenfranchisement as is and should be able to attend political events. I commend the DNC for the huge strides they’ve made in just this past election season alone and hope it continues to improve. I implore other political parties to do the same and have a designated person in charge of accessibility and public engagement just as the DNC has. After all, as I stated before we are the largest voting minority in the country that intersects with other minority statuses.
Sarah: Laura and I shared a few recommendations for improvement to the DNC that we hope will be put into action at future rallies. First, the ADA section should have stronger, sturdier barriers to prevent people from crushing people with medical devices or mobility devices. We have been told that, resources willing, bike racks will be placed around the ADA section at future events. Second, we requested that there be crowd control on the audience side of the barrier at rallies to help manage the crowd and prevent crushing. Third, we asked that the ADA section be more strictly enforced, and that the section does not get too crowded by general admission folks and VIPs that arrive late, as these members of the crowd provided much of the pressure around us during the crush as they tried to maneuver to the front of the ADA section. Fourth, we asked that organizers allow the ADA line, as well as anybody else, to be able to move away from issues outside the venue such as the bees that were landing on us, as this could have been a serious safety issue.
My final message to share is to reinforce this idea: disabled people want to participate in the political process as much as anybody else. Nobody should have to weigh whether they, their medical equipment, or their mobility devices will be at risk by attending a political rally. Please make the necessary changes to ensure that all people, disabled and nondisabled, are able to safely participate in rallies.
Sarah Blahovec is a disability voting rights activist and blogger who has Crohn’s Disease, which is an invisible disability and chronic illness.
Laura Halvorson is a disability rights advocate with muscular dystrophy. She uses a non-invasive ventilation (NIV) machine for breathing and a power wheelchair for mobility.
Thank you so much for this great article. I went to a Clinton rally earlier this year and got the last seat in the ADA section. I was nervous watching a man who was using a wheelchair as the crowd seemed to move over and closer to him as well as Hillary came out. I looked around but there was no one in charge close by. Your reporting this information is crucial for all of us who want access for ourselves and others. I look so forward to hearing the response to your correspondence. Setting anyone up in line by trash cans is unacceptable in my thinking. Best, Lorre
Thanks for reading, Lorre!
Thank you do much for describing your experience and trying to improve things for the future. I really want to go to the rally tonight but I am so afraid because of my chronic pain. My two teenagers want to go with me but they also have invisible disabilities. People just don’t understand unless my daughter passes out or something visible happens to one of us. We don’t get out much because of this, but this rally would inspiring if there were accommodations.
Thanks for reading and for your comments!