Williamsburg Trip: Disability Moment #3

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.



  1. fridawrites

    Jamming wheelchair users together just isn’t cool. It’s difficult to be that assertive–I’ll do it, but my insides don’t like it.
    .-= Latest from fridawrites: Target Ad Redux =-.

  2. Denise

    Good Morning. This is the first time I’ve ever left a comment on a blog, so forgive me if I talk too much or offend anyone.

    I stumbled onto this blog by accident, but oddly enough, I too attended a graduation ceremony in May and discovered so many accessibility issues. After reading about Katja’s Williamsburg trip, I decided to share.

    I am new to the wheelchair, and traveling with one has proven to be enlightening and frightening at the same time. I thought it would have been common sense at the airport in Tampa that, if I’m in a wheelchair, and have checked a wheelchair, that it is unlikely that I could walk onto the plane. I didn’t know I had to ask for an aisle chair. I didn’t even know that the little, skinny chair they use is called an aisle chair until I read this blog. Anyway, after sitting outside the plane’s door while someone scrounged up an aisle chair, I boarded the plane. I too tried to use the bathroom before getting on the plane so it wouldn’t be an issue once there. The flight was relatively short, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. Well I was wrong because about half way there, it became a huge problem. I was not lucky enough to have a plane with an aisle chair on it, but at least there was a bathroom at about the half way point. Since I do have one leg better than the other at this time, I was able to hop to the bathroom using the backs of the seats as crutches. Yeah, that was fun. I must say thought that the passengers were very nice and very understanding when I hit them in the head as I went by. Needless to say, the bathroom on this plane would not have accommodated an aisle chair.

    So now, we land in Philadelphia where you have to take a shuttle to rent a car. The shuttle has a wheelchair lift on it, but the driver didn’t park in such a place where the lift rested nicely on the ground. I had to be lifted onto the lift. Didn’t that defeat the purpose?

    We met my sister who flew in from California, and we decided to go have lunch while we waited for someone else to meet us in Philly. The very first restaurant we go to on this trip did not have wheelchair accessible bathroom. I GOT STUCK IN THE BATHROOM. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go backwards. Luckily, my sister got concerned and came looking for me. If she hadn’t, I might still be there caught between the stall wall and the stupid chest of drawers they put just inside the door. She was able to back me out of the bathroom.

    This continued to be the issue throughout the rest of the trip. Several other times I had issues with bathrooms. Either there wasn’t enough room to turn around so you could either close the stall door or transfer to the commode. There wasn’t enough room under the sink for me to pull up to wash my hands, or the paper towel dispenser was too high for me to reach.

    The real high point was at the actual graduation ceremony. We were at the University of Delaware, and the main commencement was in their sports stadium with bleachers, and chairs down in the field for the students with sections for wheelchairs. Now they also had a section in the lower part of the bleachers for wheelchairs but I was only allowed to have one of my family members with me. My husband stayed with me, but we were not able to sit with the rest of my family. I guess I can understand that for space reasons, but it still wasn’t very pleasant. Okay, about 1/2 through the ceremony, I had to go to the bathroom. My son comes down from up in the bleachers with the rest of the family, and helps me down the ramp to the ladies room that is underneath the bleachers. We wait in line, and I finally get into the bathroom. Well, stupid me didn’t notice there there wasn’t a wheelchair accessible sign on the front door. There had to have been 20 to 30 stalls in the ladies room, but none were wheelchair accessible. Okay, my bad, I’ll go find the one that is wheelchair accessible. Well, guess what. University of Delaware’s idea of wheelchair accessible bathroom is a PORT-A-POTTY! I avoided those things when I had two sort of good legs! I was totally aghast! Even though it was a little wider than a standard PORT-A-POTTY, it still wasn’t wheelchair accessible. I ended up having to go to a nearby building to use the bathroom. I felt so degraded it was ridiculous.

  3. Denise

    Me again – I hit a wrong button and it ended up posting.

    I’ll finish up, though I do have other feelings and thoughts. I’ll save those for another day.

    Anyway, I have a totally new understanding and respect for all disabled people, but especially for those in wheelchairs. My use of the wheelchair is only temporary. I am in awe of all of you out there that use one permanently.

    The point of all of this is if someone can tell me where or whom to write to express my concerns and suggestions for change, I would love to do so. I just don’t know where to go or how to start.

    Thank you all for listening.


  4. Marc Charest

    Just discovered your blog Katja and love it. My youngest just graduated high school this past weekend. The school had all the wheelchair users lined up like a firing squad, but I just cruised past. They are used to that as my kids have been attending that school for 10+ years and I expect to be treated like everyone else. I just found some people willing to move over so I could sit next to my family with my wheelchair in the aisle and enjoyed the ceremony. Most people will do the right thing for a polite but firm person in a wheelchair. Thanks for a great blog!

  5. Katja (Post author)

    Thanks, Marc, and thanks for commenting! Sometimes my mind does a number on me, but I’m working on being that polite but firm person.


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