Attending college right outside of Washington, DC has a lot of incredible benefits. One of them is that a lot of politicians come to visit campus for campaigning, or just to talk about important issues. At first, I would shy away from attending many of these events, simply because I was worried they would be inaccessible or filled with lots of commotion. I’m glad I got over my reservations for attending, because I have been able to see many politicians including Tim Kaine, Michelle Obama, Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Warner, and John Kasich when they came to visit my college campus. At one point, I got to talk to Joe Biden one-on-one at his “It’s On Us” event, and even took a selfie with him! Here are some of my tips for attending these events with a disability.
Be prepared to stand in line
For Michelle Obama, I was waiting in line for the better part of three hours, and still was rather far back in the line. I found myself sitting down on the pavement often and doing stretches on my legs to make sure I didn’t go into spasms. I’ve heard of some people requesting chairs from event staff to sit in while they are in line, but I have never done this. Maybe you can read up on issues the speaker is passionate about or review letters you’ve written to them- read more about writing to senators here.
These events can get extremely loud. To protect your hearing, bring a pair of earplugs to wear so that you can drown out feedback or the person next to you who won’t stop talking about nothing. I found this helped me concentrate on the speaker more.
Bring something to cover your legs if you are going in the morning
This advice would have been very helpful to me when I stood in line starting at 6 am. Wear a pair of leggings while standing in line, if you are wearing a skirt or dress. This will save you from massive chills. If needed, bring a jacket/sweatshirt as well. Even moderate temperatures can feel cold after a while.
What to wear
If you are going to a more casual event such as a town hall, wearing nice casual clothes should be fine- nice jeans and a shirt for women, t-shirt and jeans for men. If you are going to a more fancy event, such as an election watch party or an event where you are likely to meet the speaker, I recommend wearing a nice dress for women and a button down shirt and khakis for men, or possibly a tie. For meeting Joe Biden, I wore a colorful scarf with a navy dress and comfortable flats. For an election watch party, I wore a cobalt lace knee-length dress that could be dressed up or down easily with comfortable flats and minimal jewelry.
No bags, if possible
Try not to bring any purses or other bags with you to the event. These take a while to search, and you may miss out on the good seats. If you must bring a bag, bring a crossbody/long strap bag with as few pockets as possible, and have them unzipped/unclasped prior to going through security. For Tim Kaine and John Kasich, I didn’t bring any bags with me and got through very quickly. For Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, I brought a crossbody bag with my iPad, since I knew I would be standing in line for several hours on end.
The metal detector
Sometimes, the metal detector can be weirdly sensitive. I managed to set it off once with the combination of my blindness cane, metal in my jeans, and glasses. I then was pulled aside and they used a portable metal detector on me to confirm that it was the combination of those three items that set it off, and not an individual item. While security staff cannot take apart my blindness cane to search it, they do send it through the x-ray machine (while the cane is folded), along with my other items.
Ask for ADA seating
To accommodate guests that cannot stand for long periods of time or that require a sign language interpreter, all the events have a “reserved” section of chairs usually towards the front for people with disabilities. Talk to security or other event staff when you get in line about reserving one of these chairs, and provide evidence of your disability if needed (I show my blindness cane, another one of my friends shows their medical bracelet, and another friend shows leg braces). Legally, they cannot charge you extra for accessible seating.
Sit away from media
If too many flashing lights can trigger a migraine and you are sitting right in the line of fire with the media, ask for event staff or security to move you to an area where there are fewer flashing lights. One of my friends who did this was moved towards the middle section, on the left side.
Keep your blindness cane unfolded
I found that there was very little space between me and other people at all of the events I attended. Having my blindness cane unfolded meant that I could easily navigate and have something to lean on if I lost my balance. This is also helpful to security, as if they have to assist you, you don’t have to try and unfold your cane while someone is squishing you. Bonus- you can poke people with it if needed.
Have a backup plan if you get separated
Almost every single event I’ve attended has ended with me getting separated from my friends. Some of the circumstances have included security, people pushing us, me going to the ADA section, and other factors out of our control. Since cell phones can die during the events, agree on a meetup location to gather at after the event. We usually choose a nearby building. If event staff are trying to separate you from your guide, mention that they are your guide and you had requested ADA seating for a disability.
If you get to meet the speaker
My faovorite speaker I have been able to meet was Joe Biden, and he was an incredibly kind person- seriously, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met! Right before he came over to talk to me, I alerted a Secret Service agent that I was using a blindness cane, and they made sure to pass along the information so that nothing awkward would happen. Luckily, Joe Biden was very understanding and was more than happy to talk to me, saying that I looked like I would be a wonderful advocate for people with disabilities (something I am still smiling over!). I also have been able to meet various Virginia elected officials. Read more about talking to politicians and other elected officials here.
These events are so much fun, and I want to encourage as many people as possible to attend them. Show your support and gratitude for the disability legislation that has been passed, and support candidates that continue to influence it in the future.