Alas, it’s the last day of the Minnesota State Fair – and I’m not there. I was at the Fair for four days in the past week, though. Today seemed like a day to sort through the treasures I’ve accumulated, and to think about what I’ve observed and learned. There’s a lot of swag in my over-stuffed backpack and even more thoughts circulating in my head.
As I try to create a mental Big Picture of the Fair, I keep returning to a theme – the Minnesota State Fair offers a living narrative of the ways in which Minnesotans celebrate the inclusion of people with disabilities into the Fair-going mainstream.
I’ve thought and written about inclusion in the past, most notably two years ago when the fairgrounds expanded physical access options for people with disabilities.
(https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/minnesota-state-fair-photos/) The good news, as reported by Access Press, is that more improvements were added this year. Two key improvements for 2016 were a free accessible trolley that transported fairgoers from parking lot to fairgrounds sites and more accessible restrooms near the children’s area. Also new this year was a handy dining list that identifies convenient restaurants that accommodate people with disabilities; the guide notes eateries with essential curb cuts, more wheelchair friendly floor surfaces and room for a wheelchair or scooter at the table.
Thinking about my experiences this year I feel as if the potential of those improvements is being realized. My personal impression is that a whole lot of people, once excluded, were having a great time! More than this, I realize just how the updates make the Fair experience more enjoyable for everyone! From the time I arrived on the fairgrounds I observed the difference and began to take notes for this post. I observed this year’s Fair through the accessibility lens.
As in the past there are complaints about access to rides on the Midway. Since I don’t step foot on the Midway, and since the Midway operates as a fairly independent entity, I chose to celebrate the feeling of total inclusion that permeated the whole of the Fair experience – Midway notwithstanding.
I hope I wasn’t being voyeuristic when at one point I paused to observe from a relatively remote corner of the Creative Activities building. From my stance I could see six fairgoers in wheelchairs, at least eight on walkers, three people with canes indicating limited eyesight, and a couple communicating with each other in sign language. Because it was the Creative Activities building – with emphasis on the fine crafts of weaving, quilting and other grown-up stuff — I didn’t see many children in wheelchairs – children who were no doubt engaged in some far more exciting Fair adventure!
Though I admit that my first choice of Fair features is not the piglets, the calves or even the llamas, as I observed through a new lens I gained insight into the joy that has hitherto escaped me. I saw children and adults with developmental disabilities come alive as they communicated with the animals – often as their parents, siblings or PCA’s waited patiently and smiled a knowing smile as they shared the joy of these meaningful exchanges.
When the 2:00 parade marched down Cosgrove I tried to observe the crowd when fairgoers were not in motion. There were families with young folks pushing family members in wheelchairs; there were PCA’s helping elderly adults; there were couples in which one spouse was offering another physical and moral support. In fact, there were parade enthusiasts with an incredible range of physical and mental challenges. And there was a smile on every face!
Even more, I saw able fairgoers making way, lending a hand, flashing a grin and making accommodations for people and their gear. Generally speaking, it’s every fairgoer for her/himself, but Minnesotans are quick to step aside for those for whom navigating the crowds is a challenge.
Needless to say, the Fair offers a chance to connect with a host of nonprofits and public agencies that work to improve the lives of people with disabilities. From these representatives I learned a good deal about ongoing challenges, ranging from the labor conditions of PCA’s to the barriers presented by public transit. My swag bag contains a number of colorful posters celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act!
Bottom line: The Fair offers a chance to see first-hand how Minnesotans embrace members of the disabilities community. Fairgoers who need a helping hand obviously enrich the lives of good people who care and want to share the unbridled pleasure that the Fair offers every visitor. My thought is that able fairgoers enjoyed their visit to the Fair even more because we have a chance to extend the unique Fair experience to people for whom the gates have finally been opened. As Minnesotans, we take great pride and we just want everyone to experience this unique and wonderful state treasure!
Most important, the Fair manifests the ways in which people with disabilities are seizing the opportunity to capitalize on expanded opportunities to enjoy the sites, the food, the politics, the newborn animals, the music, the chauvinism and the camaraderie of the Great Minnesota Get Together!