Thoughts on accessibility at conventions

Caitlin Thomas in a wheelchair, wrapped in a Hogwarts scarfI went to three conventions in the past month and a half. I’ve realized a thing, which is going to require me telling this out of sequence.

At the last convention, GenreCon (which was amazing), in Brisbane Australia, I initially thought the hotel was sharing space with a medical convention, because I saw a higher percentage of wheelchair users than I’m used to seeing. It wasn’t until after the convention, when I was out in the city, and that same high percentage was there, that I realized what I was really seeing.

Brisbane is accessible.

There are Braille trails everywhere, which are bumpy guidelines in the pavement. Curb cuts are everywhere. Ramps. Elevators. Wide doors. What I was seeing wasn’t a higher percentage of wheelchair users than, say, Chicago has — what I was seeing was what the world looks like when people can actually access places equally.

Flash backwards to the Surrey International Writers Conference, which is my favorite conference. I’ve noticed a wheelchair users there, which I’d not given much thought to, honestly. In hindsight, I’m realizing that SiWC is an accessible convention. Wide aisles, elevators, level speaker spaces, microphones…

Flash backwards to NerdCon: Stories. This convention was amazing. Truly. I will go again, and again. One of the things that I noticed, right away, was that they had a sign language interpreter. In hindsight, again, I’m realizing that there’s a reason that I saw more than one group of fans conversing in ASL. Not because there are more in Minneapolis, but because this is what fandom looks like when it is accessible.

Most of the conventions I go to are fan run. They start as a big party and then grow. So, it’s understandable why a first year con might not think about being ADA compliant. But after the first year… there’s no reason why a panelist should have to address a room from the floor, while the other panelists are elevated on a platform. Simple things like, don’t registration in a space that’s not accessible by wheelchair users. Have websites that are accessible for the blind.

The thing about Brisbane that was eye-opening was that the wheelchair users weren’t disabled there. By which I mean that the city did not make them unable to experience it in equal measure with bi-pedal people.

It’s not that hard to do. At SFWA, the Nebula Awards Weekend has a disability coordinator whose whole job is just to make sure it’s compliant. And compliant sounds all legally and scary — but really, it just means being considerate and inclusive. It means making active choices to not disable the attendees. That’s what accessible means.

ADA compliance isn’t about not getting sued, folks.

This is about fans. This is about making SFF accessible. This is about all of us.


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20 thoughts on “Thoughts on accessibility at conventions”

  1. Holland Dougherty

    It’s always great when conventions think stuff out like this. As someone with limited mobility, I have to be constantly assessing if activities are safe for me to attend. Now that I’m on a concom, I’m making sure we have our events as accessible as possible. We even had a concom member walk out the proposed tour path – and they found that the AMNH’s guest services dept doesn’t have a clue as to what accessibility is, since they could answer none of our questions. (they thought the ADA had to do with carrying weapons in public!) So we’re gonna have to find a workaround there. Glad we have months to get that sorted!

    1. This is great, places really do need to be accessibility aware – I am in UK, some places are, some aren’t. Take my church – they have just had new doors which are apparently accessible. I have tried them on my scooter yet, actually getting the scooter to the door would be problematical. I asked what had been done to assure that the building was fully accessible to all, I was told “it fulfils all the statutory guidelines”. When I pointed out that this doesn’t always make as accessible as you might think, the person I spoke to burst out laughing and thought it was hilarious. She got told, she didnt like it.

  2. Thanks for the link to Fans for Accessible Conventions! Trying hard to get the word out about that one to Con runners and attendees alike. 🙂

  3. If I didn’t love you already, I sure do now. Thank you a thousand times. I’ve never been to an SF con, but I’ve been wanting to go to one for ages…just haven’t had the opportunity (yet).

  4. I recommend this wiki section:

    And I recommend this book:
    The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 7: Shattering Ableist Narratives

    The book has essays about disability in fandom, at conventions, and at WisCon in specific. You can read about what WisCon does right, what it’s still working on, and just as importantly, what it has gotten wrong.

    And also here’s WisCon’s Access pages:

    And I’ll second or third the rec for the Facebook group linked at the bottom of the post. You can ask questions and get help from others in the group. Learn from others. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel!

  5. Hey there – so neat to read your thoughts on this. At the two conventions I work every year we do what we can for accessibility and inclusion. Whether it’s making sure that folks who would not benefit from the stampede for seats in a program item get a specific time to enter the room and get settled at a safe pace for them, or arranging for an ASL interpreter. We’ve done a myriad of things.

    This is all extra interesting to me now that I work for the World Institute on Disability, a disability advocacy, inclusion, and equality non-profit.

    We’ve got a new project in the works for 2016 that we’re currently waiting to hear back on if the client will fund it or not. And the focus of that project will be providing disabled access concierge services at large conventions and trade shows, across the country, and also providing inclusion and accessibility analysis, training and consulting on same to convention organizers. And these services and this consulting? Will be primarily done by people with a variety of disabilities, as opposed to having a perfectly able person who may not see the whole picture from a simple lack of first hand experience. As someone who’s helped run conventions for 30 years it’s pretty exciting to be on the side of making them better!

  6. One of the things I really appreciated at DetCon1, the NASFiC in Detroit the other year, was that they made it easy to rent a wheelchair at the Ren Center. The building itself had issues, being older, but man I am so glad I didn’t have to try to conference with two canes and a walker.

    If you need accessibility, don’t feel bad about contacting people ahead of time. I’ve already been in touch with Worldcon 75 in Helsinki for 2017.

    You never know when things change and you suddenly have to worry about this stuff yourself.

    Dr. Phil

  7. It’s nice to see conventions begin to work on disability access after so long. However, back in 2012, after reading people’s complaints about a certain world convention, I drew and posted this image Just a 1-minute drawing that, if I’d realised was going to attract so much attention over the years, I would have put more effort into. And possibly never finished and never posted. [shifty eyes]
    I discovered “fandom” after moving to Melbourne, so about 7 years ago after a lifetime of loving science fiction and fantasy but doing my own thing with just friends and family.
    I’ve struggled with fandom.
    The lack of disability access is disturbing.
    For example, from 2010 to 2013, I told people every year that there was no disability access to conventions programs for me. All I needed was large print. Organisers didn’t listen; instead they repeatedly told me that there WAS disability access, it was just that no one bothered to tell me it existed and how to access it.
    In 2013 I located this alleged disability access. They’d taken a teeny tiny print program and copied it to A3, so they doubled the size to convert teeny tiny print to just tiny (still unreadable) print.
    In 2013 organisers told me that if I wanted disability access, I should provide it myself.
    In 2014 they sent me the file, a table. I spent days converting this table into an accessible online program. They didn’t bother telling anyone it was available on my website; instead, they did a “poor man’s” version on their website after they saw my version. They sent the table to me with only days to go until the convention so I only managed to create one version; I had planned to create a Word and epub version too, but there was no time.
    Other issues have smacked me in the face repeatedly too.
    For example, I’ve sat in the front or second row in convention rooms and organisers have told me to move further and further towards the back so more important people can sit at the front. More recently, they’ve allowed me front-row seating, but it took years and public complaints.
    Just walking through the foyer is a nightmare. I watch my feet, moving slowly, trying not to bump into anyone. Sometimes I just can’t move. It’d be really nice if walkways were marked on the floor and enforced, allowing free flowing movement with people standing chatting outside the walkway areas. This would also benefit wheelchair users.
    Wheelchair users should also get priority for elevators. Hell, even I use the stairs when I can.
    Socialising at conventions is pretty nightmarish. I’m not good at recognising people at the best of times and, in a crowd, I have to either know you well or you have to look pretty distinctive (like Danny Oz with his pointy beard). Either way, for me to even recognise my partner of 24 years, he still has to be close. He usually waves at me so I look for that movement. I’ve been accused of being antisocial at times because I don’t initiate conversations simply because I’ve been caught out too many times: that isn’t the person I thought, I’ve made some social blunder simply because I cannot see sufficiently to pick up on all the cues.
    I’m only speaking from my personal point of view, apart from throwing in a common-sense comment or two regarding wheelchair users’ needs. I’m sitting here, in a McCafe on the drive from Melbourne to Canberra because I’m moving house. I care so much about this subject, I wanted to comment early to raise awareness.
    Thank you for your post. Please do not assume that conventions have “made it”. There is plenty of room for improvement.

    1. Just wanted to throw in a comment on “Wheelchair users should also get priority for elevators.” Absolutely, I’m not getting my chair up a flight of steps anytime soon, but so should anyone with a mobility impairment, and not all mobility impairments are visible. ‘Invisible Disability’ is a very real, but very poorly understood issue, so when your con makes issues to prioritise disabled access to the lifts (or similar issues), make sure there’s provision to cover non-wheelies with mobility impairments, and that con-staff understand that people without obvious impairments may need that access and shouldn’t have the reality of their disability challenged.

      1. That’s a good point and one of which I thought but didn’t include becaus a) I was in a hurry to get back on the road (I didn’t arrive at Canberra until 1 am) and b) I didn’t want to muddy the issue.

        Regarding muddying the issue: with my mobility cane, conscious people rarely challenge my eligibility for things like lifts; in fact, people seem to prefer that I use the lifts. However, I’m not only capable of using the stairs, I use stairs as exercise and take pride in allowing people with other disabilities the use of the lifts.

        Recently I had to find a new-to-me room at university. I accompanied a woman who is middle-aged to elderly who, it turns out, experiences great difficulty when using the stairs. Another student inflicted 2 flights of stairs upon her when she could have used the lift during our meal break. This was followed by complete lack of disability access — ie compulsory use of stairs — to access a hidden room in the turrets of the university. The poor woman didn’t complain but I could hear her breathing and uneven pace that indicated her difficulty and her pain.

        It’s so important to make disability access available and for able-bodied people to give others priority access to the elevators instead of assuming their privilege and being lazy.

        The comments I read about WorldCon in 2012 were about people in wheelchairs consistently missing out on panels because able-bodied people crowded into lifts and people blocked walkways making people in wheelchairs too late to even enter popular panels or to be stuck in the worst possible locations in those panels.

        I’m going to write a post on PAX Australia and disability access. In my opinion, convention organisers should follow the PAX model with regards to disability access and enforces. PAX is the best expo I’ve ever attended and will probably remain the one expo I keep on my calendar now I’ve moved to a much smaller city and must travel to attend expos.

        Let’s learn from what people are doing right, let’s raise the bar and truly enable others to participate.

  8. Mary, thank you, both for thinking of disability access and for the resources. I’ve bookmarked this post.

    I’ve never been to a con, due to lack of funds. But I’ve been part of various large group activities. I’ve had the experience of being treated as a fulland equal participant, just another person in the room, and the experience of being shuffled to the side and told, “You just sit here and relax.” Inclusion makes a heck of a difference.

    As an aside, thank you for giving the image in your post a clear and concise tag and for labeling the fields in your response form. As a blind person who uses screen reader software, I really appreciate that!

    1. I’ll be honest, I’ve only just started using the image description field. I hadn’t realized until fairly recently what the field was for, so the vast majority of the pictures on my site are untagged. I’ll try to fix that for past posts, and am definitely going to always use the field for future ones.

  9. Thank you for saying this in such a clear and practical.manner. After many years of event organizing at various levels, £’ve just completed a 14 month process for a conference for people with disabilities. I cant wait to use this new perspective and skill set on my other conference planning projects. A little consideration brings us a much more diverse audience and we all win!

  10. Last year’s Worldcon, LonCon 3, was actually the push I needed to switch to being a wheelie. I did it in a hire chair and it made my life so much easier I realised I needed to go full time as a chair user. They hadn’t got access quite perfect, but they made a damned good try. I wrote my experiences up at, together with observations on what worked and what didn’t.

    Slightly less perfect experience with this year’s Geekfest, where with a month to go before the con, access info was still a placeholder, and it turned out that they had arranged additional con hotels without checking whether wheelies could get between them and the main hotel, with the result that wheelies were apparently being advised to stay at a non-con hotel with a 50% higher room rate. They responded quickly when called on it, and they’ve said they won’t be using those hotels again, but it’s a really good demonstration that access is something that starts before site selection, not at the last moment.

    If you plan it in advance, access can be put in place without a massive amount of effort or huge costs, but it does need thinking about and the involvement of people who understand the issues, which aren’t always obvious. As an example, Intersectionality is often overlooked, as shown by the wheelie+hard of hearing combination people ran into problems with at Loncon, but there is also disability/other minority group intersections to consider.

  11. As a deaf women, I must say that CONvergence in MN was one of the most accessible experiences I’ve had in my life. They were literally offering me services I didn’t even think of asking for. I was astonished and very happy.

  12. I wholeheartedly agree with you. One of the things that makes me concerned about fan-run cons is that they generally lack a clear appreciation of what accessible means. A great example of how to effort in a goodhearted way, while being completely inept is the accessibility committee at Sasquan. With the significant number of fans who have mobility issues, much more thought, not effort, should have gone into making the con really accessible. Having to walk very long distances from hotels, because handicap parking was all used up in the first hour of the con, and for the rest of it. Having to hoist yourself up into non-accessible shuttles. Not having motorized transport from one side of the convention center to the other, since it was a many block walk…yes, I am mobility challenged, and they did not serve me well. They MEANT well, but they couldn’t do it. Doing Accessiblity properly requires some professional skill and knowledge, which most fan-run cons don’t have, and it requires a budget. Accessibility is not inexpensive. In my experience, most cons just don’t really get it.

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