Two weekends ago I attended our SCBWI Southern Breeze Fall Conference (WIK - Writing and Illustrating for Kids) in Birmingham, Alabama. Thing is, according to my calendar it was supposed to be one week later - after I was well on my way to healing from foot surgery. At some point, the date moved on me and I ended up having to attend the event in full crippled mode.
There was no canceling. I was one of the speakers - "Technology and the Future of Reading" and I'd paid for a critique. Thank goodness, along with the boot and crutches, I was able to borrow a wheelchair (the conference is held at an enormous high school) and I was surrounded by friends.
Here I am during my critique with Deborah Kaplan of Penguin.
My Assistant Illustrator Coordinator and friend Kathleen Bradshaw made the whole thing possible by driving me to Birmingham and back and figuring out how to fold my wheelchair and pack it in her car to get to the various venues. (I know it got heavy.) Susan Rosson Spain, along with being the author of THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN GEORGIA, was my assigned Angel, and boy did she get a work-out. (Enormous fuzzy hugs to you both!)
Although, throughout the weekend everybody was unbelievably nice and helpful, while I seemed to become the latest novelty. (Go as fast as you can! Let's race! Beep, beep!) I had people offering to help push me around (literally) the entire weekend - including the visiting speakers! Melissa Manlove (Chronicle) especially pushed me around quite a bit. (How many people can say they got pushed around by a top editor, huh?) People laughed that with a hook like that, wheelchairs would be popping up at all our future events! And truly, with so many people generously helping and keeping my mood up, everything worked out just fine.
But I have to say I have new respect for people who have to deal with such disabilities every day of their lives. Things that upright people would never think of can be major issues for someone in a wheelchair. And it's often the behind the scenes parts that are the most challenging.
For instance, my handicapped room and shower arrangement was set up very well (I still had stitches and wasn't supposed to get my foot wet). And there was a sink that had plenty of room to roll under. However, the mirror above the sink was hung too high. Couldn't use it.
While most public bathrooms have well-equipped handicapped stalls, they often times have automatically closing doors to the bathrooms, which are extremely hard to get through without help. Great once you're in there... if you can get in the bathroom.
The hardest part often isn't being in the wheelchair itself (or in a drivers seat, etc.) - it's getting in and out of the wheelchair. Sometimes that is the barrier that keeps you home.
Rugs are hard. Hardwoods and tiles ROCK.
And parking? Well, even before the surgery when I was using a cane heavily, there were many things I couldn't do because even the handicapped spaces were just too far away.
Truly, now that I've had first hand experience with physical challenges, I hope I am forever changed into a person who opens doors, picks things up, reaches high, carries things, whatever is needed to make a truly handicapped person's life a little bit easier. Especially knowing how difficult it is to admit you need help, allow people to help, and ask for help even if nobody is offering.
Of course, at the conference, I was in a safe zone, surrounded by some of the warmest, most generous people known to mankind - who I am proud to call colleagues and friends. And at home I have a wonderfully supportive husband. I am very lucky.
Susan Rosson Spain and me.
You may be getting the idea this particular conference wasn't so much about the conference itself. While I connected with some fabulous publishing people - now agent Rubin Pfeffer, Art Director Deborah Kaplan, Editor Melissa Manlove, Editor Alexandra Cooper (who I met in Nashville), author Lisa Yee, Agent Linda Pratt, and SCBWI Founder Lin Oliver - it really was about spending time with friends. Friends who all share a common goal and just 'get' the struggle we all go through to follow this crazy passion of writing and illustrating for kids. It's invigorating to hang out with people who speak the same language and fight the same fight.
Thanks to all our wonderful volunteers, including our Regional Advisors Jo Kittinger, Claudia Pearson, and Heather Montgomery (who made a great roomie) - they work so hard to make sure these events go well. Thanks also to Lin Oliver for (perhaps naively) creating was has become a nationally renowned organization and gathering of gentle spirits. Go SCBWI!
Despite the challenges, I am so incredibly glad that I went.
Thanks to Sarah Campbell and Donna Bowman for letting me share their images.