One thing I noticed right away upon arriving in Washington is that there are a million conferences. I also noticed that people get very excited about said conferences, which perplexed me because I associate them with monotone academics, bad PowerPoint presentations and resolutions to go home and change the world that end up under the bed with the dust bunnies.
Last week I myself had the opportunity to attend one, specifically, the National Council on Independent Living's Annual Conference. While I have some suggestions for improvements, I now understand why these gatherings are treated like Christmas in July. For four whole days advocates committed to independent living (IL) gathered to share experiences, take action and chart the future of the movement. I listened to excellent speakers present workshops on topics such as The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the IL philosophy's take on mental health, and how to successfully win a campaign for elected office. Unlike other conferences, the NCIL gathering is strongly rooted in direct action, and I also participated in a march to the Capitol, a demonstration denouncing the American Hotel and Lodging Association's obstruction of the ADA and a visit with Sen. Barbara Boxer's legislative aide to discuss disability-related legislation.
What also made the experience so energizing was that, as my mother would say, the NCIL members in attendance were anything but "white bread". Arriving from all over the country (even Alaska!) they brought creativity, passion and loud, proud personalities. There were also more young people there than ever before, and a group of us met to form a Youth Caucus that will meet via teleconference once a month to organize ways to attract more young attendees and to plan some of the youth-oriented events at next year's conference.
Yes, the PowerPoint slides looked like relics from the 90s, but what I left with was more than just a T-shirt and a cheap burst of enthusiasm. The NCIL conference was an empowering initiation into a movement that will play a large role in my life in the years to come: I left with a better understanding of myself as a person with a disability. I gained a better grasp of the issues and ideas I will encounter during my internship. And, in addition to meeting veterans of the movement, I connected with young people who I would love to collaborate with in the future.