Disabled seating limited at commencement events

Commencement marks the end of college for spring 2010 graduates and a day to celebrate with family and friends, but some family members might not be able to sit with their extended family for the duration of the ceremony.

For disabled family members who attend the main ceremony at Alumni Park, a disabled seating section exists in front of the stage where the attendee can only be joined by one additional family member.

According to Jeff Olsen, director of academic events at the Office of Protocol and Events, this seat restriction, though not ideal, exists because of a limited amount of space.

“It’s just one of those practical realities of space relations. No matter what, we would have to set some sort of limit. There’s just no way we could allow an unlimited number of guests in any sort of space,” Olsen said.

There are no seat reservations for the main ceremony and all seating, including disability seating, is on a first come, first served basis. For individuals who are in need of wheelchairs, there will be about 100 free wheelchairs in front of the Alumni House on commencement day.

Olsen said that Disability Services and Programs works to accommodate all family members to give them the best service possible.

“We generally don’t have many problems or complaints about the disabled seating section,” Olsen said.

Although the section is available to any family member with disabilities, it is not mandatory.

“If you want to sit with family members, you certainly can. But if you want to sit up front in the special seating section, then you can as well,” Olsen said.

Not only does the main commencement ceremony allow a disabled family member to be accompanied by just one guest, but other schools also follow the same protocol for their satellite ceremonies.

“If one person comes with a grandma in a wheelchair and there are 10 family members with them and they take up 10 seats in the section, then there wouldn’t be many seats left,” said Marissa Gonzalez, assistant director of events for Annenberg.

According to Gonzalez, students are sent an e-mail in late January informing them about making reservations for the disabled seating section. A follow-up e-mail is then sent in late March, and a confirmation is sent to each person who requested a reservation in late April.

Gonzalez said that for the three years she has been working for Annenberg’s graduation, no person who has requested disability seating or arrived at the ceremony before 10:15 a.m. has been turned away.

“Generally people understand about the seating restrictions and because people are guaranteed seating if they make reservations, a lot of people are happy and thankful that they will have a place to sit that day,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said if the disabled section does become full on commencement, wheelchairs can be placed in storage and staff will escort the family member to a seat. At the end of the ceremony, staff will then bring the wheelchair back to the family member.

The Marshall School of Business, however, does not face the same restrictions as the main ceremony or Annenberg’s satellite ceremonies because Marshall’s satellite ceremony benefits from its large venue, the Galen center.

“We try to keep the families together unless there is an unusually large number of people because we know that families prefer to sit together,” said Kim West, associate dean of undergraduate programs at Marshall. “As long as students let us know, we can decrease or expand the special seating area and plan accordingly.”

West said Marshall is lucky to have such a large venue to be able to accommodate as many families as possible.

“Other schools [at USC] must make decisions about seat restrictions because the space itself is dictating what they can and cannot do,” West said.

An option might be for schools to have their satellite ceremonies on different days so larger venues can be utilized to accommodate all disabled guests and their family members, but Olsen doesn’t find this to be a simple solution.

“One of the great things about commencement is that it is one big day for the entire Trojan Family to get together and celebrate,” Olsen said. “If you break that day up, besides because of scheduling difficulties and costs, you lose that togetherness feeling that you get when everyone’s on campus.”