Fan Conventions and Disabilities

First, just sharing some of my own experiences.

I have a wide range of convention experience, although I don’t attend them particularly often. I have attended tiny science fiction conventions with fewer than 500 people. I have attended anime conventions with over 30,000. I have attended conventions in cosplay, dressed as myself, dressed formally, as a human chess player on stage, as a program participant, as a featured singer, as nobody in particular. I have been attending conventions for fourteen years now. And it’s been great to see the experience change for a person with limited mobility.

Fourteen years ago, a person who didn’t have to use some kind of external aid every second of every day, couldn’t register at the Special Needs desk of most conventions, because we couldn’t “prove” our disabilities. It was assumed that a walking cane was part of a costume, even if either a)I wasn’t wearing a costume, or b)the character I was cosplaying didn’t use a cane. It was considered acceptable for not only participants but also dealers and convention staff to ask a person with a visible disability to move faster in the dealers’ room at a convention to avoid inconvenience to “the rest of us.” When I got shoved down an escalator at an anime convention ten years ago, it was treated by staff as being my fault because I was in the way of other participants and they had a panel to get to, and I should be walking, not standing, on the escalator.

Much of this has changed. I still hang a small handicapped sign on my cane when I use it, but I am no longer questioned when I walk, unaided, to the special needs desk and ask for a sticker to put on my nametag. There are still thoughtless people with tunnel vision at conventions, but staff now treat incidents such as the one I experienced correctly – as I found out a few years ago at the same anime convention.

It interests me that conduct of participants at conventions of all kinds is progressing faster concerning people with disabilities than it is concerning women. In most circumstances, in my opinion, this is not the case, even inside fandom.

Some tips for the able-bodied, when dealing with persons with disabilities at fan events – because it’s not always obvious how to handle certain situations.

Disabled cosplayers are just like any other kind of cosplayer. Treat them as such. And for gods’ sake, please don’t ask them to put a wheelchair aside for a photo. If they can, they often will. If they don’t do it when the photo is requested, it probably means it’s not possible, so don’t push it.

If you notice that a cosplayer has deliberately worked their aid into their costume (example from my own history: I cosplayed MS Gundam’s Char Aznable as wounded war veteran, since I was using a cane at the time), that’s perfectly okay to comment on.

It is courteous to make sure that someone with a mobility aid gets a seat at the start of events. It is also reasonable to expect that someone with a mobility aid will arrive at or very close to the start of said event, and not walk in at the midpoint and expect a seat. Most conventions actually have a policy that persons with the special needs sticker on their badge are to be given seats within the first five (quantity varies, check your convention’s policy before you go) minutes of any event, but not after that unless you feel moved to do so.

Watch where you’re going in crowded spaces. This should be obvious, but huge numbers of people don’t. You don’t have to treat us as though we’re made of porcelain, but where a fairly basic bump against someone able-bodied isn’t a big deal, it can throw off the balance of someone with a cane because we can’t necessarily catch ourselves. One big example of this which a lot of people don’t follow: do not move directly backward in a dealers’ room; turn around and move forward, then turn again.

Let disabled people have space on the elevator. Some conventions – and some facilities – actually have a policy about this, so check it to make sure you don’t end up in trouble. And once on the elevator, let a person with a mobility aid move to within reach of the edge. If the elevator jerks at the end, it’s important that the person be able to support their balance.

If you see someone acting “different” due to a disability, keep your commentary to yourself, unless you think someone might actually need your help. If I’m walking a little funny, or limping, please don’t draw the attention of everyone nearby to it, thanks. But if I actually fall down, I appreciate the hand up. Especially if escalators are involved.

Be aware that disabled women may be a little more skittish than most women at conventions, and don’t take it personally, just give us a minute to calm down if we’re startled. Almost all women who attend conventions have either experienced or witnessed some sort of harassment, and we’re constantly aware of potential danger. Disabled women are often aware that in dangerous situations, we have metaphorical targets painted on our foreheads.

We’re here for the same reason you are: because we share an interest of some kind. Whether it’s Star Trek or classical literature, we’re here because we love it. In that, we’re just like you. Treat us as such. And if you misstep a little, no biggie. We get that you’re trying. Just try to be understanding, and we’ll return the favor by being as clear and as patient as we can.

Some tips for safety and fun, for people with disabilities when attending fan events – because while it is not our obligation to make ourselves “normal” for others, it is our obligation to take an effort to keep ourselves safe, and be watchful and to be clear about our needs.

That’s a big one: be clear about your needs. If you need something from staff, ask for it. Often staff are volunteers who are there because they share your interest, not because they’re trained disability advocates. They are more than willing to help, but need your guidance to know how. Also, you can’t expect someone to give up their seat to you if you don’t ask for it.

Make it clear with a sign or orange tape or some such that your cane or whatever isn’t part of your costume. Not everyone will know your character, and so not everyone will be able to distinguish someone who is in a wheelchair due to a disability from someone who has borrowed one from a friend for costuming.

Make sure you are noticed. Make noise to let someone know if you’re behind them, if them backing into you would be a problem. Make sure you have something that extends over your head, like a small flag, if you’re in a wheelchair. Have something brightly colored with you or on you. It makes it just that much less likely that someone will crash into you on an escalator (it’s obviously not your fault if someone shoves you down an escalator, just like it wasn’t mine, but it’s so much better if it doesn’t happen at all).

Keep aware of things around you. You know to look both ways before crossing a street. At a convention, you’re always in a street. It may not be a busy street, but it’s at the very least a bike path, and there are potential hazards that you should be on the lookout for. Simple awareness will go a long way to keep you from getting injured.

Have a little patience with your fellow fans. I’m not talking here about the idiots at conventions who say insulting and bigoted things about people with disabilities – I’m talking about people who clearly have no experience with these issues, and may be varying degrees of socially inept, but who are trying, and are nervous about seeming like one of the other group. They’re here because they have interests in common with you, and that should go some way toward drawing you together. Our culture is a precious thing, and it’s worth a little patience.

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