We Can/t Get In: A Newly Abled/Disabled Voice Behind Attending CES

We Can:T Get In- A Newly Abled:Disabled Voice Behind Attending CES.jpeg

From the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Las Vegas on January 9th, 2019.

CES is the world's gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies. It has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.

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By Mandy L.

At the convention center, the day bursts with hope. Well, this day began three days ago –Sunday evening at five when prep, sleep and tech restrictions went into “hard compliance mode”. I laugh to myself while navigating with my service dog, Trevor, through a small huddle near an available elevator – an elevator we won't be taking after three people pulled away with light looks of abhorrence as my medium-sized Golden Retriever approached them. And I am not one to scare members of the public.

“Goodness, Trevor, we're rounding into the 65th hour of this ‘day’! This presentation better be worth it. Do you think it will be?” The tech will absolutely be satisfactory. I've read the reports and requested the white papers about enhanced security for corporations and decreased neuro/sensory stimulation for Autistics.

Hmm. I'm only in the parking garage elevator, nowhere near the main venue, yet the music and movement just took away my ability to breathe and balance simultaneously. Can I grasp that wall before I stumble too hard? My concussion-prevention headgear is in place. “Here, Trevor, reposition behind me so that I may survey the flood of people, the reactions, and the possible threats when the elevator doors open and keep you safe.” Will I be able to form words when I arrive at the suite?

I'm a survivor of multiple strokes and traumatic brain injuries; I was effectively paralyzed for years, learning disabled, and on the Autism Spectrum with a genetic chronic condition of Hemiplegic migraine/seizure disorder. This means I share traits of being “newly abled” with those battling epilepsy, balance issues, cognitive dysfunction, neurodisease migraine, mobility issues, memory concerns, partial to full paralysis, sensory-sensitivities, PTSD, depression, introversion, and deficiencies that arise due to limited energy.

I also share traits of curiosity, innovation, and the desire to contribute meaningfully to society as a whole with electronics and technology as a vehicle. Cybersecurity and penetration testing call to me.

For my newly or differently abled co-tribe members navigating a technology conference in Las Vegas for the first time, sometimes entire offshoots of the conference are held in hotel suites of the venues. This can be a boon for us. First, it can mean far less people, more direct routes, and quieter surroundings. Excellent for sensory-sensitive persons and those thriving in the midst of chronic illness. If in a wheelchair, being in a suite means you are more likely to get to actually see whatever is on display. And secondly, going to a suite is one way to get close to the action we aren't invited to. CES is an industry-only show. Thus, if you are on disability, you absolutely won't be granted access.  

For the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, #CES2019, a cursory search of the exhibitors’ listing returns 716 suites in use. Over 500 exhibitors are using suites aside from the main show floors at five substantial venues. The technology I am going to see is not in one of the listed suites.

Aside from woozily wading into this mobile, temporary country of over 200,000+ CES participants, logistical transportation for a differently abled or neurodiverse attendee poses challenges beyond wait times and the confusion that every attendee encounters. I currently walk with cane and mobility harness secured to my trusty service animal who counterbalances me continuously. The risk is greater to my health and safety, for I may fall, yet accessibility while in a wheelchair for a 3-hour foray into CES would be only slightly less daunting than an average able-bodied person needing to climb uphill for eight hours straight. No rest. No change. So I chose today to try this with walking canes. Why?

Secure in my properly fitted folding manual chair, I encounter:

  • The need for approximately 40% more energy to propel my weight and body with my arms instead of my legs.

  • An increase of 50-90% more energy if I’m on a carpet (i.e. most all convention hallways and casino access areas) or for inclines. When in a wheelchair or battling balance issues, one notices inclines and declines on sidewalks, interior corridors and every handicapped-accessible ramp or doorway.

  • Fewer transportation options between venues, or from hotel to venue. Can primarily use wheelchair-accessible taxis and some public transport. Though most manual chairs, folding or not, can fit into passenger vehicles easily, I have found that Lyft and Uber drivers are not always willing to handle a piece of medical equipment, or do not have the upper body strength and agility to place the chair in the car. I only consider rideshare transportation if I am able to transfer from chair to vehicle on my own strength. To be fair, some drivers will manage the wheelchair happily. Some refuse to pick up passengers with a service dog. I understand that's against ‘policy’, but I've seen the taillights of my confirmed driver speeding away after we've made eye contact. So even if a driver is ready and willing, I have to count how many words I'll say for the day and how much energy will be expended; needing to walk them through how to handle my “legs” is a shockingly taxing obstacle that sucks energy before I even get to the good stuff: learning and interacting with the tech at the convention. All of this is a large consideration for me.

  • The impossibility of looking ahead, to see what's being displayed or demonstrated, or to navigate easily, thereby maximizing strain on my hands, my arms, and my shoulders. When in a chair, my limbs serve as my brakes and my steering mechanism, and must readily take the full weight of my body, my bags, and my momentum. This is exponentially harder on carpet (increased resistance) or on any sort of incline (refer above). Have you actually tried pushing yourself up accessibility ramps, or tried slowing yourself with pure grip strength as you come down?

  • Hand burns from slowing or stopping, even through gloves with reinforced grips.

  • Running into or being rolled into walls, trash cans, chairs, people, displays, and door jambs.

  • The need to consciously recalibrate half-second by half-second with awareness of how crowds appear to be moving, account for resistance due to floor material, changing floor materials, or inclines, be prepared for the roughly 84% of people who do not see me and step in the way or perform quick change turns like ice skaters. Mental fatigue and exhaustion similar to a full contact and aggressive game of Frogger in the hopes of NOT injuring another person soars in a compromised brain environment – my head.

  • I must never be angry, cry, or be aggressive, you know, because I stand for society’s view of how every person in a wheelchair could or should ever be.

  • If my service animal is working alongside, then being stopped every 10-30 feet is not uncommon as questions are asked, opinions are asserted, stories are told of long-loved childhood dogs, and my service dog’s shoes are discussed in detail.

  • Greater chances that I won't be taken seriously as knowing anything or that I could have anything of note to add.

  • Sometimes it's a blessing that people don't wish to acknowledge you or make eye contact. It allows me to get where I, as an intellectually stimulated person, simply wish to go.

  • Greater personal health safety issues.

  • Greater chance of not being able to position myself to protect my service animal from people or aggressive dogs. 

If in a power chair or scooter, some of what I encounter is:

  • Fewer transportation options

  • Less chance of being run over or pushed anywhere

  • Greater frustration as crowds push around and block me

  • Greater chance of injuring my service dog’s feet and legs

  • Less respect

The current realities noted above are a portion of the considerations I must calculate and recalculate minute-to-minute in venturing out. They are heightened by the sheer number of people and the limitations in place due to its being a public facility (precious time spent locating accessible restrooms, service dog relief areas, waiting for elevators and getting to see not-so-public areas when led to service and freight elevators).  

In my estimation, conference organizers do well in ensuring that basic necessities that are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act are in place, thanks to working with well-established and compliant venues. Per the CES 2019 website, assistive services are available for the vision and hearing impaired, and Segways or scooters are available for rent at two of the venues. Excellent!  

Reviewing the attendance report for CES 2018, no mention is made of how many attendees utilized their assistive services. Either way, the push for inclusion and diversity in the presenting innovators, the media coverage, the buyers’ shopping, and the government and industry professionals – all with the focus of technology representing and improving the lives of everyone – requires that more persons with disabilities be invited to attend and provisions made for their successful inclusion.  

For CES in particular, initiatives I would love to see are:

  • A call for a number of disabled persons to be granted access irrespective of current employment status. Many home innovators and “next big ideas” come while imagination and technological ability swim in the downtime that recovery or rest provide. And the vast cognitive ability for innovation that rests within neurodiverse attendees is best used if they are physically able to attenuate sensory overload.

  • A time for newly abled/disabled and neurodiverse individuals to view the exhibits free of the general population, perhaps concurrent with the media-only exposition.

  • Multi-lingual signage encouraging conference goers to yield to disabled ones, or for there to be specific thoroughfares designated for slower, unsteady walkers.

  • Encourage swag such as UV-blocking glasses, noise-canceling ear plugs, calming essential oils, small soft toys that can be gripped inconspicuously in a palm for comfort and personal strength.

  • Designated silent rooms for processing and recovery between intermingling.

  • When going through the college course and months of prep before being accepted into the service dog team program of Foundation for Service Dog Support, I was encouraged and required to contemplate what the impact of being seen as disabled would have on me mentally and emotionally. I spent many hours weighing what the benefits and deterrents of readily being seen as “disabled” would have on me. It is a responsibility to know that every minute I am out, I must act in ways befitting an ambassador of the working dog community as a whole. I suggest that those given differently abled access rights be those ready and willing to show and own that they are disabled. Those submitting for such a designation would read and sign information that lets them know that they wear the badge with pride. We do so to normalize the extreme advances that differently abled people can bring to the whole. 

The marble and stone rotunda at level two of the Venetian Hotel and Casino elevator banks is largely deserted, quiet. Twenty-eight people wait ahead for a prized position on the very few elevators that stop here. But we couldn't get down to level one, ironically. This is the only way down for handicapped access. “Come closer, Trevor. Here's a treat. You and I have lots of training to continue right here and now.” Down. Up. Sit at my side. Retrieve the paper I dropped. Stay. Where's your leash? To my side again. Balance me. Practice hitting a button on cue.  

Focusing my core strength on his and my being impervious to the world, yet retaining affability and a simplified version of my adoration for interacting with learned people, I breath. I monitor the surroundings. I check how I'm feeling. Bursting within to ask technical details and backgrounds on whatever brings their earnest faces to this oh-so-serious electronics convention in the desert, I furtively glance at small clusters of professionally dressed men as they brush past. Eventually there's a lady. Equally professionally presented in navy and black, her head tilts higher away from me, my cane, and Trevor eagerly awaiting his next command. I doubt she notices or has a single wish to be rude.

Working with Trevor is a pleasure, a thoroughly fantastic joining of our ability to communicate and his ability to serve joyously. A few passersby stop to note what he's doing or offer a comment on the neediness of people bringing animals, and some just wholeheartedly hold themselves back from rushing up to greet and love on Trevor. We don't belong in any traditional sense. However, we're here. We are ready. We are determined.

And as soon as we get up to this one suite, I’ll let the developers and moneymen hear why I'm here and not shut down when it assaults their every sense that I don't “fit”. Not having a badge displayed is a sixth-level concern apart from the accomplishment of greeting them. My masking any autistic tendencies will be on full display, meaning that I get to accomplish being Meryl Streep long enough to really question the workings of Oledcomm.

Oh man, my stroke deficiencies are rising, and we aren't even upstairs. Refocus, Mandy, refocus and breath.

My exhilaration at being here and no longer in a nursing home wouldn't translate unless perhaps I had an LED-backpack plugged directly into the energy coursing up and down my spine. We're nearly there, Trevor. Nearly there. We're every bit as ready as we can be for who, what, and where we are. So what lies ahead?

About Mandy L.

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Following a series of five strokes and major head injuries, Mandy is no longer in the construction engineering industry. Instead, she is pursuing all things InfoSec with an emphasis on Incident Response, Neuro Integration, Artificial General Intelligence, and Community, pressing forth to improve the lives of InfoSec professionals and, long term, ethical neuro-tech and Autism Spectrum Disorder communication and acceptance. Working diligently to relearn and rewire neurological and physical functioning opened whole new worlds to her. She enjoys art, being able to move again, still requires loads of rest, and hopes to be half the person her service dog, Trevor, is. 

Find Mandy on Twitter.