The pros and cons of navigating this year’s GalaxyCon in a wheelchair

Venturing out as a wheelchair user involves both perks and obstacles

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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At the latest pop culture convention I attended, I waited in line for 45 minutes on a Saturday morning with a host of like-minded geeks. But the line wasn’t to meet my favorite celebrity, voice actor, or comic book creator. It was just to get on the elevator.

Having gone to conventions and SMA conferences for years, I’m accustomed to navigating large crowds. During GalaxyCon Raleigh this year in North Carolina, I experienced both perks and obstacles as a wheelchair user.

On the one hand, the convention has accessibility policies such as free admission for one personal care assistant for disabled attendees. This policy allowed me to take my caregiver with me on one day and a friend on another, and both provided me with transportation and caregiving assistance. At events this large, I must have a companion with me at all times.

The other major benefit was having a fast pass so I could skip lines on the convention floor. Guests included stars Billy Dee Williams, Karen Gillan, LeVar Burton, and many others who had people waiting in line for hours for photo ops and autographs. Meanwhile, I was able to roll up to the front with the other VIP guests while the crowds stepped aside to make room for me. For all the obstacles I face because of SMA, my disability can also grant me superpowers.

A bearded, dark-haired man in a wheelchair stands next to another man in a loose blue shirt and white pants, who's perching on a chair.

Me and Billy Dee Williams. (Courtesy of Kevin Schaefer)

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Unfortunately, there was no fast pass for the elevator line. There was only one, in the middle of the convention center, and its interior could fit only one electric wheelchair at a time. All of us in chairs and scooters waited as the machine took its precious time to go up and down between levels. In some ways, it was akin to a bunch of us in a hospital waiting room. Yet instead of white walls and outdated magazines surrounding us, the space was filled with sweaty cosplayers and frantic volunteers.

However, the constant use of the elevator became an advantage for me on the con’s first day. My caregiver Christian and I were getting ready to leave when we realized we weren’t sure which floor to get off on. Rather than label the floors 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the brilliant architect who designed the building named the levels “2, 3, top lobby, main lobby, and have fun not getting lost.” We initially stopped on the wrong floor, and Christian got off for a split second to ask a security guard where we needed to go. Unfortunately, the elevator door closed before he could get back on.

As I sat there alone in the descending elevator, I thought about how I’ll never run out of column material. I knew it was best not to panic and risk my driving hand falling off my joystick. Thus, I waited for the next person to get on and help me call Christian on my phone. From there, I got back off on the floor I’d been on, then waited with the aforementioned security guard until Christian met me. We made it home eventually.

Episodes like this make me contemplate avoiding big events and trips entirely. It would reduce the number of obstacles I have to face, but it would also eliminate any sense of adventure. Despite the difficulties I encountered, I met heroes from my childhood and adult life. I even got my sister to the con so we could both meet the cast of the TV series “Boy Meets World.”

A photo taken at GalaxyCon Raleigh shows two women and a man in a wheelchair with a robotic arm visible on his left side. There's a paper tray of food on his lap. They are all posing in front of a table, with a poster reading "Danielle Fishel" behind it.

Topanga! Me and my sister, Erin, hang out with Danielle Fishel, center, from “Boy Meets World.” (Courtesy of Kevin Schaefer)

That said, I’d like more elevators next year.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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