When my professor asked if I wanted to present at conference in Portugal my initial response was a quick, enthusiastic “yes” (in my head). And then a host of doubts crowded in. But I’ve been training myself to say yes to experiences for so long that something small like almost three years of wheelchair life wasn’t going to sway me. I committed, registered for the conference, and then began planning.
Once I contacted the organizers I got chastised for “not telling them sooner” — even through there was no space on the registration form to specify my current main mode of transportation. Though I was asked about any dietary restrictions. Then, I was subjected to all sorts of personal questions when I registered for the “walking tour of Lisbon” — which was optional but included in the registration. Of course I want the walking tour of Lisbon!
My personal favorite personal question: “but can you walk at all?” How do I even begin to answer that? Do you really have so little imagination that you can’t understand what an invasive, insensitive, and unnecessary question that is? I get it at the airport all the time. A chance to evaluate and re-evaluate my recovery with my shoes off in front of a stony-eyed TSA officer is the price I have to pay for flying.
My limited interaction with the conference organizers made it quite clear to me that Portugal would definitely not be accessible. So, I somehow convinced Ben to come with me. First, I want to say that I have many mixed emotions about this “care taker” solution to access. Every time I reach for this option I feel a twinge of guilt and defeat. Not only is this propagating my own helplessness, it is continuing to normalize this dynamic for the outside world. The conference organizers asked if I were traveling with somebody who would be able to help me out. So that’s what I did. Instead, I should have struggled. Instead of Ben carrying me through every obstacle so that it remains invisible to them, I should have just rolled to a stop. Ben did all the work. And so nothing will change. But I’m also such an insignificant minority. Disenfranchising me has no consequences. I can’t ask a large group of people to make significant changes just for me. But if they don’t, the door remains closed for others like me. Round and round this goes in my head. Is the right thing to take personal responsibility and only attend the events I can make work? And what is the alternative? How will this shape my career? Conferences are a large part of being in Academia. I like conferences! But I can’t ask Ben to attend every international conference with me (this was the solution my professor proposed when I mentioned my concerns — I hope he was joking.)
And so, here we are: in Portugal. We arrived a few days early to explore. I’m armed with a list of things to see and to eat (mostly pastries) from a Portuguese friend. I also found a place that rents out wave-skies. Unfortunately, though May is the beginning of the surf season, the weather is against us. We have an AirBnb in the beautiful surf town of Ericeira but it’s raining and windy. Instead of getting into a dark, frothy ocean we get wet visiting castles, looking for parking, and eating well. All the food is good. And cheap. And all the wine is good. And really cheap. To me these are the key elements of feeling ‘on vacation.’
After exploring the green, rural areas around the coast and into some mountains, we move to Lisbon. I think I enjoyed this part a bit less. The number of tourists is overwhelming. The streets are steep and alternate between cobbles and steps. But I loved the history, the architecture, the views and the monuments to writers. We tried nine of the 12 must-eat Portuguese pastries. I get to see a Roman aqueduct, which was built upon by the Moors, which was taken over by a Duke, and where a bailiff built a house. These onion layers of history were a good reminder of how young and simple we are in the United States.
And then we were off to the conference. I was disappointed that the charter buses from the airport to the ferry were not accessible. Again, Ben had to carry me. The ferry ramp was really short and steep, so I needed to be pushed. But once at the conference center I could finally move around on my own. Except at the poster sessions — which were in a small room with the easels forming very narrow corridors entirely clogged with people. I sort of circled the periphery like a wheelchair shark. Better planning here would have benefited everyone, though, as the crowding made it very hard to hear what anyone was saying and it quickly became stiflingly hot. And that is the parting thought with which I want to leave this topic.
If we take the time to plan carefully and think about accessibility, we can benefit a much broader population than my ultra-minority of Telomerase conference-attending wheelchair users.
But I really enjoyed the conference. Most of the talks were great, I learned a lot very quickly, I got some good questions, and the Walking Tour of Lisbon was informative and incredibly easy compared to the self-guided tour Ben and I did days earlier. The conference ended on May 5th, the three-year anniversary of our first date. So Ben and I had sunset drinks on the beach, then a candlelight dinner accompanied by traditional Portuguese singing, with 250 Telomerase biologists. It was very romantic.