SXSW 2023: A return to normalcy and those with disabilities it leaves behind

Photo of writer John Dotson and a still image from SXSW.
Photo of writer John Dotson and a still image from SXSW. Pic credit: Aaron Rogosin/SXSW

In 2021, deep in the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, film festivals began opening their catalogs to those unable to attend. The thought was if one could not attend physically, they would bring the show to them. Festivals such as SXSW and Fantasia Fest created pathways to allow consumers and the press to see films when it was challenging to be present.

The virtual option made not only able-bodied individuals’ lives more accessible but also opened new doors for those with physical limitations to experience these extraordinary events.

For a brief moment, the world felt what it was like to be limited. And for this disabled writer, attending events that had been previously off-limits was a blessing.

For persons with disabilities, the world presents one big barrier. For example, someone with a wheelchair has to risk an airline breaking or misplacing their equipment. If they do fly, a hotel may not be ADA-friendly and/or accessible. Transportation can be expensive and undependable.

There is a need in the film industry for large festivals to make an avenue for accessibility. This is one of the many reasons handicapped laws were put in place. Stating that assisting persons with limitations is an inconvenience is no longer enough.

For most physically limited individuals, the world already feels quarantined. This is why it is such a letdown that various prestigious film festivals have decided to return to “normal.”

Simply put, festivals that proved they could embrace those who require accessibility have now decided to leave them behind again.

Unfortunately, SXSW has decided to go back to complete in-person programming, making it unbearable for those with limitations to attend.

One might say, “Well, go in person. Give it a shot.”

This writer has done just that. And it was nothing short of a nightmare. Here is a quick rundown of what it’s like to attend SXSW in a wheelchair.

Attending SXSW with a disability

Traveling and costs are a universal struggle when adventuring to any mega film festival event. It is unavoidable, even for someone without a physical impairment.

Last year, the 2022 festival was the first hybrid festival (virtual and in-person) SXSW executed (previously SXSW 2021 being entirely virtual). With the announcement of in-person, I decided to give it a shot.

Because of the expense, I had to get a hotel about 20 miles from the festival. This brought issues that an abled individual would not encounter.

Image of SXSW Paramount Theater.
Image of SXSW Paramount Theater. Pic credit: SXSW/Michael Loccisano

The first issue I encountered at SXSW was my attempt to rent a motorized chair. Their website stated to e-mail the accessibility department for a list of vendors for motorized chairs. I did. SXSW responded with their list of “one” vendor.

When I reached back out for additional vendors, I got silence. The one vendor was sold out.

Realizing this challenge, I decided to attend the festival in my manual chair (non-motorized).

Due to the difficulties, my coworker at Monsters and Critics offered to pick up my press badge. Since we both work for the same company, it would save me the hassle of worrying about the expense and problems with transporting to pick up a badge. However, we were told I must come across town and get the badge in person.

I am now back to finding a way to make the 20-mile drive.

So, I called an Uber to get to the convention area. The traffic was so bad that the driver dropped me off blocks before my destination. So I was stranded four blocks from my destination with no assistance, in nothing but a manual chair in the cold month of March. Furthermore, my disabilities extend beyond my legs, and I cannot easily roll myself down city sidewalks.

Now, bear in mind this is not the festival’s fault. They cannot control Uber. This is just a testament to the difficulties of a person’s attempt to attend the festival in person while having a disability.

So, the convention center to pick up badges is four blocks ahead of me. An employee at a local hotel sees me stranded outside in the cold. Thankfully, this employee was kind enough to push me so I could get my badge.

Image of badge pick up at SXSW.
Image of badge pick up at SXSW. Pic credit: Aaron Rogosin/SXSW

Once we got to the convention area, my helper found a SXSW worker. This hotel worker asks the SXSW worker to push me to the other side of the building.

She refuses. Why? Because they do not have insurance.

I cannot stress this enough. WalMart employees will push someone in a chair wherever they need to go to allow them to get what they need, but not a SXSW worker.

WalMart is more disability friendly than Austin, Texas’s most significant running film festival.

I finally got my badge. And when I ask for assistance to get to the shuttle, they radio accessibility for help. At this point, my screening for Everything Everywhere All At Once is about an hour and a half away.

They make me wait 45 minutes. And still, they make a stranger roll me to the shuttle. This stranger told me to complain, but I let this go because I thought the virtual portion would persist beyond 2022.

As a side note, SXSW offers a free companion badge for those who require assistance. But people need to realize not every disabled press member has a friend on standby that can help them do their job for ten days.

Additionally, this is just day one of an experience attending SXSW as a person with a disability.

For the next two days, I had a friend who was kind enough to take off work and assist so I could do my job. That following Monday, I took advantage of the festival virtually back home because the thought of doing it all on my own again gave me extreme anxiety.

My job would not have been executed successfully without the hybrid (virtual and in-person) option.

What did SXSW do right?

The festival did some things correctly. When attending an in-person screening, they were incredibly gracious about getting those in wheelchairs inside first.

The shuttle was highly reliable once we arrived at the festival’s heart. The number is easily found, and the drivers were always willing to go above and beyond to assist. But this is only usable if located within the festival.

Beyond the festival, Austin offers Uber WAV. This is a service Uber provides where people with wheelchairs can order a wheelchair-friendly cab at a reasonable price. The only issue is that most of these cabs are limited and only offered if enough drivers are available. Otherwise, an attendee might have to wait for an Uber WAV to become available for an undetermined amount of time.

All this to say, this is not an article aiming to say SXSW is doing everything wrong. They simply can be doing more and are fully aware of this notion.

Image of marquis at Paramount Theater.
Image of marquis at Paramount Theater. Pic credit: Shelley Hiam/SXSW

Being left behind

The thing about COVID-19 is it exposed all these corporations and event holders to what they are capable of. They can make these grand events virtual. They simply do not want to.

COVID-19 brought to the forefront the virtual capabilities of many companies and events. Because of this, many companies are now wholly virtual. It has opened new doors for persons who were previously stuck. And what an excellent opportunity for those with limitations.

SXSW has decided to close that door to those previously left behind and leave them out in the cold.

Sundance 2023 was the most accessible film festival this writer has experienced. And they are the most highly sought-after film festival. If they can do it, others can also. What is SXSW’s excuse?

It’s also worth mentioning that not all film festivals are built the same. One might consider Fantastic Fest a disability-friendly festival because it occurs at one location. Festivals such as SXSW and Sundance are more spread out, making the experience daunting for persons with disabilities.

When reaching out to SXSW this year, I was told they offer a library of films for the press. But here is the thing, if it was anything like last year, the number of films vastly decreased in the press room.

Additionally, press members with disabilities would likely lose access to in-person benefits such as Q&A sessions/panels that occur right after.

At SXSW, this is the hell one encounters in person as a press member with the bonus of virtual. What happens now that virtual is removed?

And may God help anyone else with limitations who is not a press member.

So, here we are again. A segment of the population is left behind due to ableist decisions.

A return to normalcy, I suppose.

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