Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Disability expos: some differences

First of all, I love disability expos. I think they're awesome. Sometimes I wish I had money and time to travel to go to them.

Why are they cool? They offer a great chance to do things like check out the newest gadgets (I'm a gadget guy), latest programs and actually see what is being done in the disability community.

It is interesting to note that in the two major expos I've been to in the past year, both of them have had different focuses. I don't know if this is due to funding or sponsorship, but it is certainly interesting.

Back in October, I went to an expo called Care Fair in Seattle, Washington. It is a combination of a disability expo and a series of lectures about various issues relating to disabilities (which you can attend in exchange for college participation credits or something, apparently). While it was neat to meet so many of our counterparts south of the border, I found that it was very corporate and most of the booths out there were advertising new products.

That was not surprising since the title sponsor was a Washington and Oregon health products provider. It was really neat to try out things that I've often only seen on YouTube or on other sources online. I got to try out a wheelchair that lifts users to others' eye levels. I got to see what kind of new wheelchair technologies were being prototyped. I got to try out a stander that did its job so quickly that my legs immediately spasmed all over the place once it lifted me to standing position. (That was scary too.)

It was almost like being a kid in a toy store. While needing to use a wheelchair can be annoying, I've always found it fun to try out new stuff because you never know when you might want one (assuming the costs are manageable). A lot of these products are not as widespread or readily available in Canada, which is a shame. I would often need to drive to Bellingham in Whatcom County or Seattle to obtain them. Some Seattle dealers are also willing to travel to Whatcom County to meet customers.

Fast forward to spring. A few weeks ago, I went to Vancouver's own disability expo at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, presented by the Connectra society. Being my first expo in my own hometown, I was somewhat expecting something similar to the one in Seattle. I was surprised to see that products took a backseat to things such as social services, organizations and resources for people with disabilities. There were a few products being promoted there but they took on a secondary role.

The Disability Foundation posted a video of the Vancouver expo:

I don't know if it is a USA vs. Canada or a corporate sponsorship thing but the differences between the two are huge. I had a great time at both of them and each one has its own merits.

I see the advantage of having a product-focused expo. I learned a lot about the different products available and what new things are being developed. Because of this knowledge, I can decide on buying new products without falling for sales tactics that try to convince you that you need a certain product when you don't. I can also pass down this knowledge to other people I know. By testing out the products for myself at the expo, I can now tell what things I'd love to obtain and what I can do without that I previously wanted.

However, having an expo similar to the one in Vancouver is beneficial for those who are more focused on how to get involved in society. It is no longer about companies trying to sell things to you but rather societies trying to get you involved in their happenings. It is about the person, not the person's equipment. There are so many groups out there that people may not even be aware of and it is a great opportunity for them to make themselves known.

One thing I would love to see in Vancouver is a combination of the two approaches at a larger venue like the Vancouver Convention Centre downtown or the Trade-Ex in Abbotsford. An expo combining the two approaches has the potential to be one of the most popular disability events in North America, lining up comfortably with the existing Abilities Expos in the US that happens every spring and summer. It could attract people from all over Canada if done properly.

There is a lot of potential around this area for disability events. Hopefully these two events are just preparing us for something much larger in the future.