Disability, Diversity, Dignity

So imagine you are an up and coming professional in the field of SFF. You worked hard for your credits. You are publishing, people get to know your work, and you are invited to participate in programming at a major SFF convention. It’s pricey, but this is a professional and social opportunity, so you pay about a thousand dollars (flight, lodging, food) to attend this convention.

Then, on a panel, all the participants sit behind a table on an elevation, but not you. YOU are asked to sit on the floor. Not only are you on the floor, you are also seated BELOW everyone.

And your next panel. And your next. They just don’t have a chair for you.

Would you feel happy? Welcomed? Treated with dignity? Would you feel your 1000$ dollars were well spent?

This happened to my friend Mari Ness at the recent Worldcon. Joseph M. McDermott wrote it up here: :

So, Mari Ness, who is a very smart person that I would love to listen to about many, many things, is in a wheelchair, and she couldn’t get up to the panels where she was on, because there was no way for her to get a ramp up to the same level as the rest of the panel, had to spend her panels down below everyone else, on a lower level than them. That’s not cool. It was an oversight in a huge, fan-run convention, so it’s not worth a rage-fueled rage. But, do please fix that at every con, everywhere, forever, right now, please. (emphasis mine-RL) Are you a Con? Include ramps to the panels. Thanks.

I met Mari Ness in person when I started attending conventions in 2011. I went to WFC in San Diego. I was very ill, but my best friend was leaving the US for G-d knows how long and I had to see her and she was in San Diego. So I flew out. I was in debilitating pain. The con was not accessible. My best friend, who uses a cane, had a very difficult time despite being local. Mari Ness? Dear G-d, nothing was accessible for Mari, who uses a wheelchair. It was atrocious.

We started talking publicly about disability access after that con. I am sure people were doing it even before. In 2012, Mari again went to WFC. And it was HORRIBLE again.

In 2012, the Nebula awards had no ramp. I participated in some SFWA discussions about helping with disability policies at cons. I regret I could not do more than I did, due to my own health and family issues flaring at the time.

It is 2013. Mari DMed me before Worldcon with hesitations about her attendance, and I did my best to talk her into going anyway. Then, during Disability in SFF panel, there was no ramp. There was no wheelchair access at the Disability in SFF panel. Nor for other panels.

For at least three years Mari, who paid full price for attending conventions as an industry professional, had to suffer physical pain, humiliation , and anguish due to the lack of basic accessibility at cons. People who are less brave and determined than Mari would simply not go. How can we give lip service to diversity if our conventions actively exclude the disabled?

People who live with disabilities, or are caregivers to the disabled, do not always have the freedom to choose an accessible place of residence. Those who rely on a primary caregiver are often limited to the location of the primary caregiver. Those who raise children with disabilities may strive to live in places that offer the best services. Those who hold jobs while disabled may feel especially vulnerable in this economy and may be unwilling to risk a move. What this means is that fans and professionals with mobility issues may feel fairly isolated in their regular places of residence; cons then become an important social outlet, a respite from this unwelcome social isolation. But when the disabled SFF geeks go to cons, they may end up spending thousands of dollars only to be in pain, to be humiliated, to be told that one is overreacting, in short to be treated as less than human.

Leaving aside the ever-popular question of the appropriateness of rage, I want solutions to this – and not only to lack of mobility/wheelchair access, but to disability access at cons in general.

What can we do? Most immediately, if you are a person planning to attend a convention, please consider contacting that convention prior to purchasing membership and asking them if they have a disability policy. We need to act on this as a community – otherwise things will not change.

(I am hoping to post more on this, spoons permitting).

ETA: Follow-up post: Disability access and being a bystander

ETA2: This discussion is also ongoing on Twitter, under the hashtag #accessiblecons. It is also a part of #DiversityinSFF conversation. I am @roselemberg on Twitter. Please join us!