William & Mary worked hard to accommodate disabled guests at the actual Commencement ceremonies. The ceremonies were held in William & Mary Hall, in what is normally the basketball arena. This facility, which seats 8,600 to 11,300 people, depending on how the floor is configured, has 10 wheelchair seats.
I’ll repeat that: between 0.08% (no, that’s not a misplaced decimal point) and 0.11% of the seats are wheelchair seats. For comparison, the ADAAG requires that newly built arenas seating over 600 people reserve 1% of seats for wheelchair users. For William & Mary Hall, this would be between 86 and 113 seats.
So they didn’t use those 10 seats. Instead, a large part of the floor, right in front of the graduates, was reserved for wheelchair users (specifically, people who could not climb steps) and their companions (nominally capped at one companion per wheelchair user). I guesstimate that approximately 150 people were seated in this area, and that the wheelchair user to companion ratio was around 1:3.
Another large seating section near the ground level was reserved for those with mobility disabilities who could climb steps. This section was also reserved for those who needed an ASL interpreter – an interpreting team was provided by the college.
We got there early – too early. We were seated in the first row in front of the seating for the graduates. As each person or family arrived, ushers filled in the seating toward the front. They were very aggressive about cramming people in together tightly, so much so that I began to worry about how I would ever get out again. As the rows kept mounting in front of us, I realized that I was the only self-propelled wheelchair user present – until a gentleman arrived with his wife. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I could tell what it was about:
He to usher: I’m not going to sit there (roughly in the middle of the row) – I’m going to sit on the end where I can get out when I want to.
The usher didn’t like this. She was polite, but it clearly went against what she had been instructed (cram these people in as close together as possible). She was holding a folding chair for the wife, and saying something about needing to fill the row in. He was also polite, but he wasn’t asking. He was telling. The usher went off to consult. While she was gone, the gentleman in the wheelchair picked his own spot, taking the aisle space in a row that didn’t exist yet.
As we waited around for things to start (probably another hour), he was able to move around and get pictures. He was able to get out to go to the restroom if he wanted. He was my hero, and I wish I had been able to thank him afterward for the good example he set of firm and polite self-advocacy for the accommodation he needed. But of course, he was able to leave after the ceremony, and I wasn’t, so I didn’t have the chance.