Sept. 13, 2016 05:49 PM

Disability advocate Liam Doyle walks the 2016 TEDx audience through a lifetime challenged by cerebral palsy.
Photo by A.J. McGee

TEDxVermilionStreet found a new a gear in its second edition. While successful in its maiden voyage, the stand and deliver showcase of ideas shied away in its first year from third rails and hot buttons, aiming for a perhaps more genial atmosphere in which to make a first impression. Back then, provocative candor was left to previously recorded TED talks imported from the brand’s international parent.

Perhaps most telling of TEDxVermilionStreet’s sophomore maturity is that this year’s crop of TED talk imports was overshadowed by the gutsy intimacy of live and in-person locals baring their tribulations — be they living with HIV, cerebral palsy, obsessive compulsive disorder or Islamophobia. True to their "Challenges" theme, TED speakers this year challenged the boundaries of public conversation in a conservative town.

When Liam Doyle, a college student and advocate living with cerebral palsy, clicked through images of his tragic birth weight and his improbable survival, the gathered audience held him with a vocal compassion.

His tour of wheelchair travel around Lafayette’s cracked sidewalks, harrowing roadways, scant bike paths and institutional roadblocks for the disabled put a face on problems overlooked or relegated to the realm of travel convenience.

“I go fast,” he said. But the rest of us aren’t going fast enough toward universal accessibility.

For Doyle, Lafayette’s poor planning and road management plagues his morning commute with an adversity that would reduce most of us to shut-ins.

For the first half of the slate of talks the audience was pummeled with personal anguish. That’s not say this was a joyless affair.

Even as he explained the chilling misinformation that shames people living with HIV, student and HIV advocate Arik Hartman kept the crowd aloft with hope. Hartman’s talk served as a much-needed update on the status of effective treatment options for a disease once considered a death sentence.

His talk was frank and funny, making as much light as one can about the errant choice that caused his own infection and the steps — broaching the subject via dating apps like Grindr — he’s taken to coax fellow patients out of a dangerous shadow complicated by homophobia.

Hearts surely broke for him when he described getting kicked out of his apartment by fellow members of the LGBTQ community, watching as each roommate’s empathy devolved into a tyranny of quiet fear. His story brought home a story already localized in a state that counts among the highest per capita rates of HIV infection in the country.

It goes without saying that, for the most part, the TEDxVermilionStreet audience self-selects for the open minded. But look no further than Nadia Khansa’s account of living as an American Muslim and a victim of sexual abuse in Acadiana as a reminder of what instruments of progress like TEDx are up against outside of AcA’s Moncus Theater.

She fled Lebanon as a young girl amid daily bombings that briefly separated her family from her father when she fled to the U.S. She’s an American citizen. And before she could even drive, a teacher accused her of secretly plotting to terrorize Louisiana. That was a prescient thing for audience of Americans to hear on Sept. 10.

By close of festivities, the lucky 300 in attendance learned a lot about the diversity of life and longing in Lafayette, and by extension the diversity of issues our culturally bubbled town fosters: Alternative sentencing programs keep offenders from going back to jail at eye-popping rates. Invisible youth, both in poverty and in mainstream culture, suffer among us in droves without the loving attention of engaged adults. We're afraid of sex. We’re afraid of people not like us. We’re afraid to grow our gardens wild.

Much of it we already knew. But we still needed to hear it.

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