Disabled Fans and Creators Are Kept Out of Too Many Conventions. Now They're Not Alone.

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Science fiction and fantasy conventions exist in the venn diagram between professional networking events, marketing expos and fan celebrations. Between all three of those things, they do a lot to shape fandom and the stories we love. And for years now, conventions have been failing disabled fans and professionals. So now, at last, some professionals are signing a pledge that they won’t go to any convention that does not take disabled accessibility seriously.

The pledge comes from former Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) vice president Mary Robinette Kowal, along with Uncanny Magazine publishers Lynne and Michael Thomas. [Full disclosure: Uncanny Magazine published a story of mine.] The organizers write: “All members of a convention should be treated with dignity. These are people– friends, fans, and colleagues– who have the same right to an inclusive experience at these events as any of the other paying members, volunteers, or guests.”

And the signatories to the pledge agree that they won’t attend a convention unless it has: 1) an accessibility statement posted publicly; 2) at least one trained accessibility staff member; 3) facilities in accordance with guidelines like the SFWA accessibility checklist and the Americans With Disabilities Act rules.


World Fantasy Nightmares

Kowal launched her pledge after Mari Ness, an author and Tor.com blogger, posted about her horrifying experiences at the latest World Fantasy Convention—a small annual convention that’s aimed at professional writers, agents and editors. Ness, who uses a wheelchair, was on a few panels at the convention, and she recounts:

I rolled up to my 1 PM Friday panel on Epic Fantasy properly caffeinated and chatted briefly with various people as we waited for the doors to open. The doors opened, people poured out, I rolled in and headed towards the stage –

And felt my heart sink.

The panel had a stage for the panelists.

That stage did not have a ramp.

For her second panel, Ness went out to her way to make sure everyone in Program Ops knew that she uses a wheelchair—and they still failed to provide a ramp or other facilities. At the second panel, all the participants joined her on the floor in front of the stage. (At the first panel, they just handed down a microphone and stayed on their podium.) After this experience, Ness announced that she, personally, would not be attending any conventions that don’t take accessibility seriously.


I reached out to Joseph T. Berlant, the chair of this year’s World Fantasy Convention, and he responded that Ness’ problems were “the only incident reported” at the convention. He added that the convention tried to address disability issues by sending all attendees a questionnaire “which, among other things, asked if there was anything the Convention needed to know about them.” He admits the questionnaire did not ask about disability issues, and this was an oversight.

Adds Berlant:

Assuming that members of relevant committees actually know the needs of an individual member will not guarantee that relevant people know individual needs. Perhaps a committee should prepare for any contingency. That is not what the law requires and would cause conventions fees to be astronomical.


Berlant actually knows Ness, but wasn’t aware she was on any programming. And when the convention’s Facility Division was notified of Ness’ problems (after the first panel), they “checked into resolving the issue” and found that “the cost of doing so on short notice was prohibitive.” Berlant adds that the solution of having everyone on the floor with Ness “was elegant,” and he’s disappointed none of his people thought of it. The hotel and other facilities were, by and large, accessible, says Berlant, except for a few bathrooms in the convention center that had to be closed.

(This convention also caused a huge controversy over its harassment policy, which basically consisted of calling the police for any legally actionable incidents and ignoring all others. Berlant says that the convention had actually “prepared a form to take any complaints,” but nobody filled it out—although he’s just been notified of one potential incident of harassment at the convention, and it’s being dealt with. He also says the World Fantasy Board is considering issuing a general code of conduct, possibly covering harassment, for all future conventions.)


“Nearly Ubiquitous”

But World Fantasy 2015 is by no means the only convention to have problems with access for disabled fans in recent years—a number of previous World Fantasy Conventions, and Worldcons, have had widely reported and horrendous issues.

“I was on a panel on disability issues years ago that was raised. With no ramp,” says Haddayr Copley-Woods, an author and essayist who is disabled.


“I have to say, from my own experience, that it’s nearly ubiquitous,” says author Lee Martindale of disabled accessibility issues. She’s attended many conventions where “it’s been assumed that I used the powerchair for convenience, and could hop out of it and climb the steps to the stage.” Including two WorldCons where “the need for access never seemed to have crossed their minds and when presented with the need for it, resulted in my being told that I should be grateful for a place at the table. Even if I couldn’t get to it.”

“Often, it’s a case of people not recognizing a barrier as a barrier,” says Martindale. Sometimes, the organizers choose not to put up a ramp due to “pitch or construction,” and make the “safety call” that someone should work from the floor instead. Sometimes the hotel promises accessible facilities, but then falls through.


People have two problematic reactions to disability, says Copley-Woods. First, they think it’s “nice to have.” She says, “It’s not ‘nice’ to follow a law that’s been on the books for twenty-five fucking years. Seriously, you guys. It’s just ‘following the law.’ Do you feel super smug about yourself when you stop at a red light?” And the second is that they worry so much about getting it wrong that they do nothing at all.

Some conventions do get it right, however. The most recent Nebula weekend, the first to follow the SFWA guidelines, was terrific, says Martindale. And Dragon*Con has almost always been perfect. Martindale was moderating a Q&A with two stars of Babylon 5, and at first was upset not to see a ramp—but there was a wheelchair lift by the side of the stage, and that lift “followed” her to all her panels for the rest of the con.


And Copley-Woods says her “gold standard” for accessibility is WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, WI. They put a ton of thought and resources into making the convention accessible, “not only for those of us who use wheelchairs, but also for people with sensory issues, autistic people, etc.” Their policy is here.

And when WisCon has gone above and beyond in supporting disabled people—for example, having a “free aisle” in hallways so everyone can always pass—has made the convention more pleasant for everybody. Now, says Copley-Woods, “when I crutch or roll into WisCon I KNOW there will be a ton of other disabled people there. And honestly it’s the only place I see so many disabled people in one place outside of disability-specific spaces. It gets me a little choked up, to see so many of us.” (Although WisCon is also where Copley-Woods had that experience with the disability panel with no ramp.)


The Pledge

“I’d been aware of this as an on-going problem for years,” says Kowal, but this year’s World Fantasy Convention was a catalyst. Right before this year’s WFC, she’d attended three conventions that were fully accessible. “The contrast made it very clear how many people SFF was excluding.”

The response to the pledge has been encouraging so far, but the number of signees thus far “is significantly smaller than those who signed the anti-harrassment pledge that John Scalzi posted a couple of years ago,” adds Kowal.


Kowal adds: “Everyone knows someone who has been harassed at a convention. Fewer people know the fans who can’t attend conventions, precisely because they can’t attend conventions. Someone actually said to me, ‘But what if I sign and then can’t go to a convention.’ And I was just, like, are you hearing yourself?”

Plus Kowal says she’s gotten more or less the same response to the pledge from a couple of people: “So this is a way to guarantee that a bunch of SJW shitheads won’t attend SF conventions? LOL, well sign me up.”


Thus far, many of the people signing the pledge are science fiction professionals, including regular panelists and guests of honor at various conventions around the country, plus fans and convention runners, say Michael and Lynne Thomas. Often, people haven’t been aware of these problems because of poor information, and because when disabled fans do show up, they’re reluctant to be seen as causing a problem for the convention.

And it’s no accident that conventions that have problems with disabled accessibility often do a bad job with harassment and other issues, say the Thomases—often, both things are about creating a welcoming space. They point to this blog post by author Andrea Phillips, who writes: “the sort of convention that can’t be bothered with a harassment policy is likely going to have serious organizational problems, weird politics, dull programming, or some combination thereof.” And the same is true for accessibility.


But for her part, Martindale says she won’t be signing the pledge, because she’s learned in 40 years as a human rights activist that “change is not brought about by using only one approach.” And in addition to public protests and boycotts, another valuable approach is “those directly affected by the exclusion communicating with those perpetuating it, explaining and demonstrating why the exclusion is a problem and what to do about it.”

“If I’m not there, as a scheduled guest, a rolling reminder of why accessibility is important and capable of explaining what I need to do the job I was brought in to do, it all becomes purely academic and easily dismissed,” says Martindale. “It’s hard to dismiss someone sitting right in front of you.”


Copley-Woods tells convention organizers that a great way to get started is “to just go around the space and make notes, and TELL people on the web site everything you see. ‘There are small stairs here and here; you can access the space through this annoying series of convolutions,’” and so on. And remember that the ADA requires reasonable accomodations—a new convention may not be able to afford everything, but it can afford tape to cordon off a space for wheelchairs, and how to provide assistance in registration lines, and so on.

Copley-Woods says her best advice for con planners is, “Get started, do your best, and don’t freak out.”


Top image: London Comic-Con, photo via Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.