Robin's Blog

Attending EGU in a wheelchair

This is an old post that I found stuck in my ‘drafts’ folder – somehow I never got round to clicking ‘publish’. I attended EGU in 2016, and haven’t been back since – so things may have changed. However, I suspect that the majority of this post is still correct.

Right, so, in case you hadn’t guessed from the title of this post: I use a wheelchair. I won’t go into all of the medical stuff, but in summary: I can’t walk more than about 100m without getting utterly exhausted, so I use an electric wheelchair for anything more than that. This has only happened relatively recently, and I got my new electric wheelchair about a month ago.

For a number of years I’d been trying to go to either the European Geophysical Union General Assembly (EGU) or the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (AGU), but I either hadn’t managed to get any funding, or hadn’t been well enough to travel.

This year, I’d had two talks accepted for oral presentation at EGU, and had also managed to win the Early Career Scientists Travel Award, which would pay my registration fees. So, if I was going to go, then this year was the right time to do it… I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and go – and it actually went very well.

However, before I went I was quite worried about the whole process: I hadn’t flown with my wheelchair before, I didn’t know how accessible the conference centre would be, I was worried about getting too tired, or getting rude comments about being in a wheelchair, and so on. The rest of this post is going to be very detailed – and some of you may wonder why on earth I’ve gone in to so much detail. The reason is explained very well in this post by Hannah Ensor:

Friends, family – and even strangers – often want to be supportive. The most common phrase is: “Don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine.” After all, accessibility is a legal requirement so that shouldn’t be a problem. And you want to make me feel better about the trip.

But think about it: Do you really understand all my needs and differences, and have an equally detailed knowledge and of everything that might present challenges, and suitable solutions to each one from the moment I leave my home until I return to it again? Have you inspected the accessible loos and checked the temperature control in the rooms? Do you realise how many places that call themselves ‘accessible’ have steps to the bathroom or even steps to the entrance?

Most of the information I could find before going was of this ‘everything will be fine; it is accessible’ type – and so that’s why I am putting all of the details in this post: hopefully it will make someone else’s life far easier in the future. Although I’m writing primarily from the point of view of a wheelchair user, I’ve also tried to think about some of the issues that people with other disabilities may experience.

I’ll start with the things that will be most generally applicable – in this case, the venue. EGU is held at the Austria Centre Vienna, close to the Danube in Vienna. The EGU website helpfully stated “The conference centre is fully-accessible”, but gave no further details – and most disabled people have learnt from painful experience not to trust these sorts of statements.

Luckily, that statement was actually true. Most people will get to the conference centre from the local U-bahn station (Kaisermühlen-VIC – which, like all of the U-bahn stations, has lifts to each platform) or one of the local hotels. There are various sets of steps along the paths leading to the conference centre, but there are always nice long sloping ramps provided too:

The entrance to the conference centre is large and flat. There are automatic doors into the ‘entrance hall’, and then push/pull doors into the conference centre itself (they are possible to open in a wheelchair, but most of the time people held them open for me).

Some of the poster halls are in a separate building (although they can be accessed by an underground link from the main conference centre). The entrance here isn’t totally flat: there is a small, but significant bump (‘mini step’) which my electric wheelchair didn’t like. Going in the door backwards worked, but that can be a bit difficult if there are lots of people around.

Each floor of the conference centre is entirely on the level, and there are multiple sets of lifts (two in each set, and I think there are three locations in the buildings):

The lifts are of a reasonable size, with enough space for me to turn my wheelchair around inside them. I could reach the buttons inside the lifts, but people who have shorter arms than me might struggle to reach from their chair. Also, as far as I could see, there were no braille markings on any of the buttons, which would make it difficult for a visually-impaired person to use the lifts.

The other minor issue with the lifts was that it was sometimes difficult to reach the call buttons for the lifts, as a set of recycling bins were usually located directly in front of the call buttons (I have no idea why…). I could reach ok most of the time, but people with shorter arms than me would struggle.

One thing that you may have noticed from the pictures above is how well-signed everything is: this was a really pleasing aspect of the conference organisation. As you may also have noticed from the maps, the building is symmetrical in a number of axes, so it could be hard to work out where you were (everything kinda looked the same…) – so the maps and signs were much appreciated!

The rooms that were actually used for the talks varied significantly in size from small ‘classroom/seminar room’ size to large ‘auditorium’ size. I didn’t manage to get many photos of the rooms because I was usually busy either listening to a talk or giving a talk, but here is an example of one of the smaller rooms:

As you can see, the floor is entirely flat here, so it is very easy to get anywhere you need to get to. When listening to talks in these sorts of rooms I tended to place my wheelchair at the end of one of the rows of seats, or – if appropriate – ask someone to move one of the seats out of the way to give me space to fit into a row properly.

When I gave a talk in one of these sorts of rooms, I spoke from my wheelchair at the front of the room (directly underneath the projection screen), with a portable microphone and a remote to change the slides. I didn’t use the official lecturn as in my chair I would have been hidden entirely behind it – and I’m not sure the microphone would have reached properly!

I haven’t got a photo of any of the larger rooms, but they have a stage at the front – which obviously makes things a bit more difficult for wheelchair users. I was offered a range of ways to present in that room: from my wheelchair on the main floor (ie. not up on the stage), or walking up the stairs to the stage and presenting from a seat behind the lecturn, or presenting from a seat behind the convenor’s table on the stage. I chose the latter option, with a microphone and laptop to control the slides – but any of them would have worked.

Each time when trying to sort out the arrangements for my talk, I found the ‘people in yellow’ (the EGU assistants in yellow t-shirts who sort out the presentations, laptops and so on) to be very helpful in arranging anything I needed.

I didn’t do a PICO presentation, but I attended a number of PICO sessions, and was impressed to see that each ‘PICO Spot’ had a lower screen for wheelchair users:

The exhibition area was generally accessible with two unfortunate exceptions: both the Google Earth Engine stand and the EGU stand were on a raised platform about 3 inches off the floor…very frustrating! I expressed my frustration to the people on the EGU stand and was assured that this wouldn’t be the case next year. All of the rest of the stands were flat on the ground and I could access them very easily.

I’ve left one of the most important things to last…a real essential item: disabled toilets. As many disabled people will know, disabled toilets can leave a lot to be desired. However, I was generally impressed with the conference centre’s toilets:

It’s difficult to show the full size of the toilet without a fisheye lens, but they were large enough to get my wheelchair in and still have a fair amount of space to move around (far better than the sort of ‘disabled’ toilets that will barely fit a wheelchair!). They were also clean, nicely decorated, and had all of the extra handles and arm-rests that should be present. What’s more, the space next to the toilet itself was kept free so that if you needed to transfer directly from a chair to the toilet then that would be possible.

All of the toilets in the main part of the conference centre were like the example above – very impressive – but unfortunately the toilets in the other building (which contained poster halls X1-4) weren’t as good. They were still better than some toilets I’ve used, but they had turned into a bit of a store-room making them cluttered and difficult to manouvere around, and also stopping anyone from transferring directly from a chair to the toilet. In this building the disabled toilets were also located in such a way that the open door to the disabled toilet would block the entrance to one of the ‘normal’ toilets…and this means that when you open the door to come out of the toilet it is quite easy to almost knock someone over!

In summary, things worked remarkably well, and accessibility was good. I would have no hesitation in attending EGU again, and using my wheelchair while there.

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This post originally appeared on Robin's Blog.

Categorised as: Academic, Disability

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