Abilities Expo Houston: 2022 Overview

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Public attitudes toward disability have come a long way in the past few generations. From a topic that was rarely acknowledged in polite society, disabilities or “special needs” have evolved into an everyday concern that few policymakers dare ignore, and even into a source of pride over personal uniqueness. (After all, isn’t everyone “dis-abled” in the sense of struggling with one or more skills that come easily to others?)

Disability has also become a major consumer market, as seen in the Abilities Expo program that now holds annual events in over half a dozen cities. The most recent event being in Houston, at NRG Center the first weekend of August 2022.

Nearly 90 Exhibitors

Abilities Expo Houston attracted well over 80 exhibitors (including Easter Seals Greater Houston) representing disability services and products for everything from autism to quadriplegia. Over the three-day period, an estimated 3,757 attendees came to learn about the latest advances in apps, wheelchairs, advocacy services, and other options for making everyday life a little easier.

Just a few of the exhibitors:

  • Ainsley’s Angels of America, an inclusion-advocacy nonprofit best known for sponsoring inclusive endurance events, such as road races
  • Harris County Elections, to provide voting-registration opportunities and absentee-voting information
  • ProBed Medical Technologies, manufacturer of smart beds that rotate during the night to prevent pressure sores in sleepers with mobility impairments
  • Texas Technology Access Program (TTAP), which set up a demo area where visitors could experiment with apps and learn about TTAP’s device loan program
  • Wheel the World, a travel agency dedicated to planning long-distance trips for people with disabilities

Relax and Learn

In addition to the exhibitor displays, the Abilities Expo featured free COVID-19 vaccinations; recreational activities (a major attraction was the towering, all-inclusive climbing wall); and a calendar of events and workshops. A few highlights from the calendar:

  • “Accessible Home Design: The Basics,” presented by Mark Thompson from Paralyzed Veterans of America. Takeaway point: For thorough coverage of accessibility considerations for every room (and yard and story) of every home, PVA recommends the book Accessible Home Design: Architectural Considerations for the Wheelchair User by Thomas Davies.
  • “The ‘CURE’ to Inclusion,” presented by Ruth Rathblott, author of Singlehandedly: Learning to Unhide and Embrace Connection. Takeaway points: CURE stands for Connection-Understanding-Representation-Empathy. Even seemingly obvious physical disabilities can be hidden by those who feel judged or “abnormal” (before deciding to “unhide,” the speaker had multiple coworkers and acquaintances who never realized she had only half a left arm).
  • “All about Service Dogs,” presented by Kristin Hartness of Canines for Disabled Kids. Fun fact: Qualifications for service dogs are stricter than those for police dogs, and among dogs accepted for service training, only about half graduate to full-fledged service dogs. (Note: BridgingApps has recently published a blog post on service dogs and another on Emotional Support Animals.)
  • “Polypharmacy: What Is It and Are You at Risk?” presented by Jay Gupta, Medication Therapy Management Consultant. Takeaway point: A substantial percentage of people who take medicine for chronic conditions suffer from the “prescribing cascade” problem, where many of their medications are prescribed to counteract the side effects of other prescribed medications.

Thoughts and Observations

Abilities Expo Houston was the first huge public event attended by the writer since the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020. A few things that could have made it even more disability-friendly and inclusive:

  • Provide reliable virtual-attendance options at all workshops and demonstrations, for the benefit of those whose disabilities preclude in-person attendance.
  • Highlight precautions being taken to reduce any risk of illness spreading. (Only a tiny percentage of people bothered with face masks in an extremely crowded setting, which—absent obvious mention of other precautions—may have scared away some visitors with compromised immune systems.)
  • Widen the aisles and/or create “wheelchair lanes.” (While the existing setup was more than adequate for foot traffic, some areas proved a tight squeeze for multiple wheelchairs and scooters.)
  • Provide shuttle services to attract more attendees from lower-income areas. (NRG parking is expensive, and the walk from public-transportation stops can be difficult with mobility impairments.)

As with disability advocacy and technology overall, the Abilities Expo learns and improves every year. Watch for announcements of the next Houston Expo, scheduled for August 4–6, 2023!

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