Disability Activism: One Thing to Keep from the Pandemic for an Accessible World? Virtual Events, of Course!

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

As someone with Tourette’s and several other comorbid conditions, I was finally able to attend the Tourette Syndrome conference in both 2020 and 2021. Normally it is only held in Minneapolis, but thanks to efforts and sponsorships to have the event completely online, I could attend from the comfort of my own home. I could hear and watch a variety of presenters on any topic I wanted. No plane tickets, no conference fees, and plenty of panels to choose from that pertained to my specific experiences. 

While the pandemic made traditional travel impossible for many, it opened a new world for me thanks to an increase in virtual events. The pandemic has also made it possible to not have to come up with excuses for why traveling is so difficult for me. Very frankly, I rarely tell people about my agoraphobia. For one thing, many people don’t understand the concept of being deathly afraid of being in an environment out of your control (such as most of the planet). I also don’t like recalling the incident that first made me agoraphobic: a trip to New York City in 8th grade involving a traumatic, severe panic attack lasting over 6 hours. 

Growing up, I at least could use the default excuse of “my parents won’t let me.” As an adult, my go-to option is normally being too busy and not having the money to travel. Both are technically true: as an educator I need to put in a good deal of work into ensuring my students are understanding the content they need and as a writer I devote a good deal of time to my projects. Neither of these pursuits leave much room for spare cash, especially if I might be spending money on a trip that may end up being a distressing, awful experience. 

As an agoraphobe, I always consider the following: 

  1. Am I allowed to have a trusted person come with me? As a follow-up, will they be able to come with me so I have someone who can bring me back to reality if I’m having a panic, anxiety, or tic attack?
  2. Is there a place to escape to at the event or other location if it is overwhelmingly crowded? 
  3. Do I have to buy a plane ticket?
  4. If I have to buy a plane ticket, will I have to pay a copay just to get my doctor to give me stronger anti-anxiety medication to avoid an embarrassing and terrifying display on the plane?
  5. If my anxiety at my destination is unbearable, will I need to go to the ER and pay for that too? 

While I have made significant progress to overcome my phobia, it doesn’t mean that I’ve totally recovered. Like many with phobias and mental illness, I sometimes “relapse”. Part of this is the pressure to travel as much as I can, or I’ll “limit myself”. This was further perpetuated by a distant family member who told me I, at age 16, was limiting my potential because I admitted how deathly afraid I am of planes. This only made my anxiety worse, as it placed the blame solely on my weaknesses and fears; I was limiting myself, I was already a failure for not “overcoming” my struggles as opposed to giving myself grace and patience to recover from an experience that was traumatic for me. 

When society puts travel on a pedestal as the ultimate sign of a successful life and shuns those who do not actively pursue it, it ignores the realities of citizens who have many legitimate reasons to not travel, especially those with disabilities. Around 25.5 million people in the US alone are reported to have travel-limiting disabilities. Whether a disability is mental, physical, or both, it shouldn’t be seen as unreasonable to allow disabled people to have accommodations or alternatives, especially when it is to access information about their own condition.

That isn’t to say that every person who wants to travel in order to have a fulfilling life is ableist, but looking down on others for not being able to travel due to mental or physical illness most certainly is. While virtual events also need significant improvements to give a fully accessible experience, even having the option to attend an event virtually is an opportunity for someone to engage with something or someone they never could before. 


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