Seven years ago, United Spinal Association’s Greater Kansas City Chapter hosted its first abilities fair in the small lobby of one of the local rehab facilities. As board member Erin Brown remembers, about 25-30 people showed up to interact with a handful of exhibitors. From those humble beginnings it would have been hard for even the biggest optimist to imagine how the event would evolve and grow.
The second year the chapter moved the event to a larger facility, arranged for some demonstrations, put together a panel on consumer education and more than doubled the number of exhibitors. “Around that time, several of our exhibitors commented that there were a number of smaller groups in the area holding similar awareness expos, drawing the same exhibitors and different fragments of the disability crowd,” says Brown. “They asked why we didn’t get together, so we did.”
Those unions led to the Kansas City Ability Expo, held at a local mall, and an even bigger turnout, now with around 50 exhibitors, increased consumer education and a kids’ zone. The following year, the Expo moved to the Overland Park Convention Center, filling 60,000 square feet with even more exhibitors, disabled artists, local businesses and a huge mobility hall for vendors to display their wares. The Expo continued to grow into its new home last year, adding continuing education options, more demonstration space and much more. Last year’s event drew 150 exhibitors and around 1,500 attendees, according to Brown. “It’s definitely evolved quite nicely,” she said.
Despite all the growth, and the chapter’s significant investment of time and money, the expos have stayed in the black. “It’s been a self-sustaining entity,” says Brown. “We’ve made enough money to cover all of our expenses, usually with some left over.”
The chapter takes great satisfaction in seeing all of the attendees who have used the event to get connected with dealers, artists, businesses and resources as a great source of pride. Brown said the expos have also helped raise community awareness about how involved and capable the local SCI/D community is.
In fact, the event grew so big that national competitors started to notice. Just as last year’s flyer was going to print, the Expo committee received a certified letter from the legal team behind a nationally known organization asking them to change their name so as to avoid confusion. And so was born the Midwest Ability Summit.
This year’s Summit is scheduled for August 27, back at the Overland Park Convention Center. Brown, who serves as the membership chair for the event, anticipates the biggest turnout yet, and credits the planners’ efforts to reach out beyond state borders as one of the key reasons. Looking back, she said the decision to grow the event beyond just SCI/D and tap into the broader disability community proved invaluable and she encouraged others to consider doing the same.