Tuesday, July 5, 2011

New perspectives of Philadelphia

This is my second ISTE at Philadelphia, the first being back in 2005 when it was still the NECC.  I wasn't that keen on going back to Philly as the first time there I had found it a pretty unfriendly and unhelpful city compared to the other US cities I have visited over the years.

Well, in 2011 I got to experience it from a wheelchair and it was amazing! I broke my foot 10 days before the conference and we decided to go ahead with our travel plans anyway. People could not have been more warm, friendly and helpful in Philadelphia. From the cabs (we took dozens of those) to the hotel staff to the cafes to the conference centre - folk went out of their way to be kind.  Opening doors, offering to fetch and carry, and always offering friendly greetings.

The greetings. Seems like every second person who went past would have a quip:

"What does the other fellow look like?"

"I'd hate to see the other woman"

"What did he DO to you?" - looking at my faithful driver.

And sitting parked while my driver was scouting for supplies (or just taking a break) I met heaps of new and interesting people who took time to stop for a chat.

But I also had a new appreciation of a conference from the perspective of a wheelchair.  I saw endless table/counter edges, but frustratingly couldn't see what was on them!  Same in Reading Terminal Market - a place I had fond memories of from my previous visit - you really can't see the food on display from wheelchair height. When parked in a lecture theatre it was surprising how many people then came and stood in front obscuring the view. And I didn't get to take photos the same this time. Getting out the camera was often just one thing too many. I discovered collecting schwag is for the able bodied - it doesn't get offered to people dwelling below eye height, and if you can't see it you can't help yourself the same. But the name badges everyone wears on lanyards were at the right height to read this time!

No trip to the USA is complete without a bathroom anecdote or two!  I have some beauties from this experience, but have decided that discretion is the better part of valour this time round - regretfully. Suffice it to say that doubling the size of the cubicle and putting in a handrail does not magically make a stall 'accessible' to a person struggling to walk!

I hope that the impact of my wheelchair and crutches sabbatical has made me more empathetic to others in similar situations.

The other perspective that was so different this time round was brought about by social networking.  In 2005 social networking was in its infancy, so the conference felt like 20,000 strangers walking around who may have known the small group they came with but no-one else.  Six years later it was more like a big reunion of 20,000 people. Everywhere you went there were people bumping into old friends and people they had only met online before this week.  I guess it may not have been like that for half the attendees, but the difference for the other half was noticeable.