Accommodations provided at SXSW, disability advocacy

Romi Geller

For 32 years, crowds of industry professionals have flocked to Austin to take part in South by Southwest. An integral part of planning any event — especially one as massive as SXSW — is providing information and accommodation for attendees with disabilities.

SXSW attendees who require assistance can request accommodations by emailing the address located on SXSW’s accessibility page. According to the accommodation page, those who require a companion while attending SXSW can request one companion wristband. SXSW also allows ADA-approved service animals at all events and provides volunteers at information booths.

For attendees and presenters who are blind, deaf, have vision impairments or are hard of hearing, SXSW recommends contacting them directly to
discuss “reasonable” accommodations. SXSW provides American Sign Language interpreters for several events at the Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake, and offers to schedule interpreters elsewhere on request. An accessible viewing platform is available to attendees who use mobility devices such as scooters or wheelchairs. As for transportation around the conference, an accessible van for those who use mobility devices is available during scheduled shuttle hours. 

While the Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that public events must provide certain accommodations, attendees often have to be their own advocate when
planning to take part in an event. Writer and activist Hannah Soyer, a speaker on the SXSW panel “The Disability Story: Diversity in Media,” requires a mobility device. She said preparing to attend an event does not start and stop at the accessibility web page. 

“With most accommodation pages, you often have to call and get more details, or even just call and make sure that those accommodations will for sure be available,” Soyer said. “Whether or not information is provided online, you often have to do further digging.”

Kristen Lopez, a writer and film critic, focuses her work on portrayals of disability in film. She will be attending SXSW as a film critic and said oftentimes the process of obtaining accommodations is a burden that falls on those withthe disability. 

“As a society, because the disabled community is not perceived (as) a marginalized group, when we have valid critiques and complaints, we are perceived as wanting special treatment,” Lopez said.

Teaching fellow Travis Chi Wing Lau, who specializes in disability studies, said advocating for one’s rights continues beyond attending public events — it is a daily task.

“There’s a sense of burden placed on marginalized groups, having to often disclose their experiences in order to get what should be fairly universal and necessary access,” Lau said. “To articulate their needs and feel like they have to constantly bring up the question of accessibility.”

Writer and activist Emily Ladau, another speaker on the Diversity in Media panel, said she is attending SXSW in part because it is important to her to expand the places where disability is represented. 

“I chose to get out of that disability bubble a little bit when attending SXSW because it’s really important for me to be able to get in front of people and talk to them about the value of including an authentic disability narrative,” Ladau said. 

Attending SXSW can be a mental, physical and financial burden for all attendees, but by prioritizing accessibility, Lau said events that celebrate the convergence of voices enable a larger range of voices to take part in the conversation. 

“If festivals are focused on exchanging not only ideas, but conversations, prioritizing access is the way you can enable those conversations to happen,” Lau said. “If you are there to circulate ideas, access will allow more people to enter the conversation.”