Attending college outside of Washington, DC meant that I had many opportunities to interact with elected officials and to hear what they had to say about prominent issues. While I was worried for a long time about attending political events with low vision, learning more about the accessibility options that were available to me helped me to feel more confident attending, and as a result I got to attend events for several well-known politicians at the state and federal levels, including but not limited to Michelle Obama, Ralph Northam, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, John Lewis, and Joe Biden, who I had the honor of meeting prior to him becoming president. Here are my tips for attending political events with low vision.
Be prepared to stand in line
For Michelle Obama, I had to stand in line for three hours prior to the event and had to go through additional lines for security and seating in the student center- she was still First Lady at the time of this event, so security was a bit more chaotic compared to the other events. For the other events, I still had to wait in line for at least an hour in both indoor and outdoor settings and used that time to read about what issues the speaker had been talking about in recent times.
While I was able to stand for extended periods of time with the help of a leg brace and sitting on the ground with a friend, I saw many people who requested chairs from security so that they did not have to sit on the ground or lose their place in line. At another event, there was a separate line for people who had mobility issues that would keep them from standing for extended periods of time.
These events can get extremely loud, so I brought the earplugs that I use for band with me so that I could block out environmental noise, which was especially helpful for crowded indoor events. Depending on where I would end up sitting, I would take out the earplugs once the event began.
What should I wear to a political event on campus?
Casual events, such as outdoor talks or campaign speeches
Casual or dressy-casual clothing, such as jeans and a nice shirt, casual dress, or clothing from the person’s campaign. If you will be waiting outside for an extended period in the morning, I strongly recommend bringing something to keep warm such as a jacket- even moderate temperatures can feel cold after a while!
Fancier events, such as an election watch party
Business casual is typically the standard for these types of events as people are more likely to interact with the speaker- when my friend and I attended an election watch party, I wore a cobalt dress with comfortable flats and minimal jewelry, while he wore khakis and a button-down shirt.
Meetings with the speaker
For a few events, I knew ahead of time that I would be talking to the speaker either before or after the event and would typically choose to dress business casual for these events as well. When I met Joe Biden for example, I wore a colorful scarf with a navy dress and flats.
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Going through security
Purses and bags can take a while to search, so try to avoid traveling with bags or purses when possible to minimize the time being sent through security. I chose to bring a purse with my iPad when I knew I would be standing in line for long periods of time and wanted something I could read, but it took at least an extra 5-10 minutes to get through security.
Do blindness canes go through x-ray machines?
At all of the political events I have attended that featured metal detectors or x-ray machines, my blindness cane had to go through separately so that the staff could make sure that I did not have items hiding in my cane- this happens when I take my blindness cane with me to the airport as well. While my cane was being searched, I stood next to a security officer or police officer who handed me my cane once the scan was complete, and then escorted me to the line for the seating areas.
Requesting ADA seating
To accommodate guests that cannot stand for extended periods of time, guests with vision loss, 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, and are also not supposed to separate you from your guide or person assisting you- while I can’t have a huge group of friends with me, I can make sure that if I have a friend acting as a human guide, they won’t be separated from me.
An additional bonus of being in the ADA seating area is that these seats are usually not near the media seating area, where there may be more flashing lights from cameras or bright lights being pointed at people who are on the air. If a person does not need ADA seating but does need to avoid being in front of flashing lights, event staff can move the person to a different location.
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Keep your blindness cane unfolded
While I typically fold my cane behind me when I am sitting at an event or store it in another place, a lot of these political events feature a lot of standing, crowds, or people moving around. For this reason, I keep my blindness cane unfolded and have it lean against my shoulder when I am at these events so I can make sure my cane is not broken or a tripping hazard for someone else.
What if I get to meet the speaker?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet several elected officials before or after events and have also been able to ask questions during events as well. I have an entire post about what to say when meeting politicians linked below, though one of my most valuable tips is that it’s good to alert the person’s security or Secret Service ahead of time that you use a blindness cane and have trouble seeing. When I met Joe Biden, one of the Secret Service agents noticed my cane and asked if I had trouble seeing, then asked if there was anything that (then) Vice President Biden could do so that it would be easier for us to talk. At a different event where I was meeting multiple people, I asked security if they could have people identify themselves when they were speaking to me, i.e. “hi Veronica, this is Senator Kaine, I am on your left.”
Other tips for attending political events with low vision
- Do not speak to reporters until they have verified their credentials, such as the name and company they are representing
- If you get separated from friends, have a designated place to meet up after the event is over- my friends would use a dining hall on campus
- For events where people are given signs, find a way to indicate the correct orientation for the sign- I used a clear piece of tape on the back so that I wouldn’t hold it upside down