BlogHer 2008: Accessibility of Westin St. Francis
For over a year now, I have been traveling and going to professional conferences as a person with a disability, a wheelchair and crutches user. Abilities and disabilities vary wildly. My own issues are most often bathrooms, distances, exhaustion, and stairs. I am less aware of issues and solutions for people with visual impairments and for the deaf or hearing impaired community; I apologize for not addressing those issues here.
If you have mobility issues and wonder about the accessible geography of the conference, I have a ton of information!
My rollthrough of the Westin St. Francis Hotel filled me with confidence that this was a good hotel choice. Westin on wheels, baby! There are signs everywhere, good elevators, decent bathrooms, and while the hotel layout was a little bit spread out, it was doable. (Unlike scarily huge places like Navy Pier or, say, Moscone Convention Center.) What a fancy hotel, by the way, and I love the fancy scrolly things and the giant chandeliers and all that stuff. Wow. It's pretty. It's SWANKY.
The hotel is right on Union Square. It's on a hill, but not too steep of a hill. I wheeled two blocks uphill from Powell and Market, where the Powell St. BART station is, in my manual chair. I did it, but thought about losing my dignity and asking a stranger for a push. The curb cuts were okay for a manual or power chair, not perfect but reasonably smooth. Within 1 block of the hotel with just a little bit of an incline, there are restaurants, all sorts of good shops like Lush and H&M, Macys, tourist souvenier stuff, cafes, and the square itself which is a nice little park with fountains and trees.
The building is in two sections, the historic part on Geary and the "tower" bit which I think is on a different side of the block - maybe Powell?
So there are two banks of elevators.
I could reach the elevator buttons. Oh, you laugh. You think I'm not serious! But, I was in a hotel in Vancouver, where I could not! The laughter, it is bitter sometimes!
The main entrance on Powell, facing Union Square, has about 10 steps with a landing, and a handrail. For us wheelybots, there are two entrances, both on Geary. One is next to the parking garage, in the middle of the block. The other is in the parking garage itself.
In the garage, there are at least 5 van-accessible parking spots, on level ground right next to the entrance, with a marked crosswalk.
Most of the halls are carpeted, which I'm sure is nice for your feet but is hell on my wheels. Now you know why my triceps are so huge. We call it friction. Carpet, ugh!
There were 5 elevators and quite a lot of different staircases, big wide carpeted staircases with good handrails. The numerous staircases in every corner of the building are great for me because the elevators will be less crowded. Take the stairs if you feel up to it, you walkies!
Most of the conference will take place on the mezzanine level and 2nd floor. There are also two big rooms on the first floor in the Tower section of the hotel. I think we will be putting nicely drawn maps on the conference site and in the registration packets, so you'll be able to get the lay of the land.
Registration, food and coffee, the big sponsor rooms, the internet cafe area, and the big keynote sort of rooms are on the mezzanine level. The wheelchair accessible bathrooms are near the elevators, behind where the registration table will be. The big keynote rooms are at the other end of the hotel on that level, and while there is a bathroom on that side, it is up about 8 stairs. So if you are on wheels, you have to go a fairly long way, but it is not tragically long and -- so important -- there are signs everywhere on the walls. Now, if you can do some stairs with handrail, you are golden and can use the closer bathroom to the areas where there will be a lot of activity.
On the second floor, most of the conference rooms are on the other side of the building from where the rooms on the mezzanine are. So it is not an ideally "compact" space for people who get tired easily. However, there are two accessible bathrooms and they are central to where the conference room areas are! I noticed the child care area will be pretty close to everything (unlike at BlogHer 07 or 06).
One detail that you and your walkie friends might be aware of. There are many exits from the conference areas, but most of them involve a lot of stairs. I could totally forsee the situation where I am with a crowd of people all wanting to book out of there to get dinner, and they go down the million stairs and I am left going around the long way - which length seems trivial to the vigorous and able bodied, but which means extra time, pain, and exhaustion for someone like me. I will be getting a lot of room service, because getting around the conference from floor to floor and room to room is for sure going to use up all my spoons.
Some of the rooms have, or might have, raised stages. There is one ramp which they can move from room to room if needed, and there's a stairs-and-handrail setup that is portable.
The hotel spa, pool, and gym are down some stairs, but are accessible from two small lifts. The hotel gets major points from me for the lift being turned on, working, and having the key in it. At other places I have not been so lucky, and there will be a lift, but no one knows how to work it, it needs a manager, I'm not allowed to operate it by myself, or worse, I'll go up it and then the key will disappear and I can't get back down! Well, the Westin St. Francis did it right, and there is simply a handy lift, available for use. In it, you can pretend you are in a rocketship airlock or going to your superhero or supervillain lair in your private mineshaft pneumatic tube.
The rooftop lounge area (I think it is a bar?) is reportedly accessible, but I didn't see it. At the bottom of the "tower" elevator there is a sign that I very much appreciated, that said "No accessible bathroom on 32nd floor, please use disabled-accessible bathroom here in the lobby" with an arrow pointing it out. Now, that is just cool. You might think I would be mad there is not a good bathroom on the 32nd floor. Instead, I am super happy there is an informative sign that lets me know what to expect. "Not accessible" could mean anything, and the hotel rep wasn't sure -- is it the door width? lack of hand rail? a step? I was very curious, and wanted the hotel rep and my fellow BlogHeristas to understand that accessibility is not binary. It is not "accessible" or "not accessible"; maybe I could get in that bathroom, after all, I can walk okay, just not far, and steps are very hard. Or, I might be able to fit my tiny 22 inch wide wheelchair into a bathroom door, and turn around and shut the door, in a place where a power chair user who can't get up would be out of luck. Even a tiny, "inaccessible" bathroom can be vastly improved by a simple handrail! Now you know, huh?
I have not seen the hotel rooms themselves. The hotel rep, Judit, said there was a range of rooms, some with wider paths through the room, some that are narrower; some with roll-in showers (with bench? she didn't know!) and some that are bathtubs with handrails. So, if you are staying in the hotel, ask a ton of detailed questions, and get your specific needs met, rather than just asking if a room is "accessible" or not!
I hope to see some of my fellow bloggers with disabilities at Blogher 2008. If you have any questions or particular needs please feel free to contact me. And, come say hi, and admire my SPARKLY LIGHT UP WHEELS.
As I wandered the hallways I was filled with happiness imagining the floors and chairs all draped with awesome women and their laptops, furiously typing, sucking power from the hallway electrical outlets, and photographing each others' shoes.
See you at BlogHer!
p.s. Dear Walkies... I am not "Brave". And, remember, don't grab my chair, push me, or tell me about your homeopathic remedies! Zip it! Thanks! We have other things to talk about LIKE BLOGGING FRINSTANCE.
P.P.S. Remember to bring a power strip! You'll be one of the Cool Kids if you do.