Yesterday, Mary Robinette Kowal made a proposal to fandom: pledge that, from 2017, we will not attend conventions that do not make serious efforts to be accessible. You can read more about the details and what conventions can do at the SF/F Convention Accessibility Pledge on her blog.
I attend at least one convention each year, taking part in panels and frequently working somewhere behind the scenes. I’ve been attending cons for fifteen years, and over that time, I’ve seen the full range of what cons will (and won’t) do to address accessibility needs. Most of the cons I do are UK ones, and most have been fairly good on an accessibility front, which makes me one of the lucky ones, I suspect. The Stargate cons that I used to go to regularly always had seating reserved for those with accessibility needs, areas for wheelchairs, arrangements for those who couldn’t stand in lines, and interpreters on hand for people with hearing impairments. To me, that always seemed like the bare minimum that should be done, and if they could do it, why didn’t everyone?
I’ve heard awful stories from people who have been to cons that were accessibility nightmares. Or cons where the convention staff did their best, but the rooms at the con hotel were impossible. Fans pay a lot of money to go to cons, and they should be able to enjoy all of it, not just parts.
This year, I went to Nine Worlds for the first time. It’s a convention that tries very hard to be accessible and inclusive to everyone. For the first time, I got to see what a convention is like when it works to include those with invisible disabilities, too. There was a quiet space for people to retreat to when they became overloaded, which is a particular boon for anyone not staying on site with a hotel room to retreat to. Every programme room had microphones, and panellists were instructed to use them.
What struck me most was the placement of the accessible seating in each room. There was the usual row or two at the front that I’m used to, the areas reserved for wheelchair users, and they’d made a real effort to keep aisles wide enough for wheelchairs to fit down (as long as attendees didn’t block them with bags etc. *sigh*).
But there were also a few reserved seats beside every door.
Why is this so important to me? I have bowl disease. Whenever I go anywhere new, I scope out where the nearest bathroom is and how easily I can get to it in a hurry, even when I’m not in a flare. It’s become a part of my life. I even have an app on my phone to help me find public bathrooms fast. Those reserved seats near the door? Meant the world to me. If I’d been in a flare, I could have asked for one of the accessibility passes and sat there at each panel. If I needed to run out to the bathroom (anyone with bowl disease will know how little time we get to make the mad dash), I’d be right by the door. No running down aisles, pushing past people, feeling self-conscious about being a distraction. Just slipping out through the door beside me and dashing for the bathroom.
When you go to a convention with a really good accessibility code that’s implemented well, it may suddenly seem like fandom has far more people with disabilities than the rest of the world. It doesn’t: this is what the world looks like when it’s fully accessible to everyone. Look around at your local community, office, or school. The odds are good that it’s not accessible to a lot of people, and so they don’t go. You don’t see them because they can’t be there.
That’s not fair and we should be trying to change that, but most of us are one small voice in a sea of people who don’t want to change. However, there is a place where we can make a real difference and ensure that our SFF community isn’t a no-go area, or an online-only forum.
I’ve signed the accessibility pledge because conventions should be accessible to everyone, even if the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet. Fandom is huge. Taking part in the face to face part of it shouldn’t restricted to those who are neurotypical, able-bodied, and free from chronic illness. It should be accessible for all of us.