I am a fan, too!

This is a guest blog post by Juliette Rizzo.Juliette Rizzo is the former Ms. Wheelchair America, one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women and a long-time inclusive health and wellness advocate. Juliette is a nationally recognized public speaker and has over two decades of experience designing and producing largescale, highly visible public events. Click here to contact Juliette.

Walkable, Roll-able Accessible Events: Setting the Stage for Possibilities 

I never thought I would paint my fingernails green. 

In support of my friend, a lifelong fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, I went wild last month when they made history and won Super Bowl LII. As a strategic events planner, I was even more excited about the opportunity to celebrate the big win with other Eagles fans at the event-of-all-events, the official Super Bowl parade in Philadelphia. Green shirts, shoes, a green boa and even a green tutu made my new checklist, a definite contrast from my usual stiff black suit.

After the miracle of securing what I was informed was the last hotel room in Philly, I called City Hall to help me identify designated accessible walking paths and seating areas. I use a power wheelchair for mobility and am used to advocating for accessibility, so I knew who to go to and what questions to ask.

Ready to roll, I woke up extra early and headed towards the parade route joined by hundreds of fans with the same idea. Overwhelmed with the euphoria of being included, when as a child with a disability many years ago I merely sat on the sidelines as other children played sports at school, I was overcome with the joy of being a true fan for the first time — the camaraderie, the shared experience, the desire to buy a jersey and get MY name put on the back.

Approaching the event site, my newfound devotion both peaked and plummeted as I, and several other fans who were utilizing wheelchairs and walkers for mobility or had invisible disabilities, found out it truly wasn’t easy being green. While Philadelphia is regularly ranked one of country’s top walkable cities, on this day, strategically placed barriers meant for crowd control, transformed a mostly accessible city into a maze filled with dead ends.

As the fans poured in, I found my accessible walking paths and curb cuts blocked by other fans, mud, jersey blockades [HS3]and event volunteers who didn’t know how to open alternate routes to the designated accessible seating location, which had been engulfed already by even more fans who blocked what was supposed to be an accessible pathway. To be clear, I know these fans did not mean to prevent me from joining in.

Struggling for safety amongst the masses as the crowds literally poured in around me, I rolled into the street and hailed the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Stephen Rizzo(I’m sure we’re related), to come to my rescue. In minutes, Stephen had a small pre-parade of his own, people with disabilities filing in after me and following his crisis vehicle down an open street to the VIP event entrance, where he cleared us in, and, by nature of our collective presence, we created our own accessible seating and companion seating area, which was eventually fully embraced by event producers and made for the best seats in the house.  I even met the governor! Unfortunately, a flight of stairs blocked me from meeting the players, but it did not deter one fan who abandoned her manual wheelchair, going to any lengths to get that autograph.

People with disabilities are Very Important People to consider in site selection, especially when planning an event or even in city planning. Events support and celebrate a sense of community and are a healthy community’s greatest asset to encourage participation by all people. I want to access my community and attend events with my friends, family, and loved ones just like everyone else. I want to experience the possible, and not be considered a problem.  My experience in Philly has reminded me access doesn’t just happen. From spontaneous, temporary events to organized social justice marches and pop-up farmers markets, it takes all of us to make accessibility a priority from day one and to co-create fully inclusive experiences for everyone where we live, learn, work and play.

That’s why, although I am sitting down, I am taking a stand with America Walks to address attendee access at public community events and to rethink walking and walkability to embrace the way I, and so many others with varying abilities, walk and get around. We need you to help us co-create safe and accessible places to walk, roll, and be physically active for EVERY BODY. We want every walk audit to include an accessibility audit and every event audit to do the same – and we are collaborating to develop tools to share with you to make that possible.  I say Walkability, Roll-ability, Possibility!

Including people with disabilities is a social, moral and legal obligation for event planners, and it makes sense, as well as cents. The disability market consists of 56 million people representing an annual disposable income of $544 billion. Walkability expert, Dan Burden,  upholds that “special events can make walking exciting, fun, social…and can create a critical mass of walkers that can attract even more walkers.” Who doesn’t want to expand their market and generate more revenue and traffic for their event?

In the weeks ahead, I will be providing more blogs with specific tips for creating inclusive events. I will be working with America Walks and partners to produce a set of walkability/accessibility audit tools and will continue to speak out for including accessibility in every audit and people of all abilities in every public gathering. So for now, Go Eagles and I can’t wait to help make the next parade truly available to everyone!!