Disability access and being a bystander

I am continuing my posts on disability and #accessiblecons because there are things I need to say.

Yesterday, a commenter, Lou, left this comment to the Disability, Diversity, Dignity post:

What the heck? I would not participate on a panel where one of the members had to be seated separately from the rest of the panel. I would sit on the floor with Mari before I would allow this to happen. What’s wrong with the rest of the panel that they would accept this arrangement?

When an event is occurring, few bystanders react the way we’d like to react. People observing con harassment often do not interfere. People observing disability-related injustices often do not understand what is going on, are not sure how to react, what is appropriate to do.

In 2002, I was a young graduate student doing summer language immersion school in an Eastern European country. The students were international, from Eastern and Western Europe, the Americas, Japan. It was very cool. The organizers were cordial. Among us students was a girl who used a wheelchair. I do not remember her name now – she was not in my class. One day we were about to go out to a tour to a famous historical site. We got on the buses, and at that point, out of the window I saw the girl in the wheelchair arguing with two of our organizers, and at that point I realized they intend to leave her behind. Some of us ran out to find out what was going on. We were told that the girl cannot come with us because the wheelchair cannot go on the bus. “No worries,” said one the guy students who ran out, “We can easily lift her, collapse the wheelchair, then unload it again. It will fit. No worries.” The girl in a wheelchair really wanted to go and was ready to accept the help. The organizers said no. Even if we loaded the wheelchair, the student would be a burden to “the healthy students” (I remember this phrasing). We kept arguing that she would not be a burden, that we would help her along the way, stay with her in places too narrow for the wheelchair – to no avail. Eventually we gave up and went on the bus and it drove away without her.

The historical site was very beautiful.

I had wanted to stay behind. I should have stayed behind with that student, who, like the rest of us, was paying to be in the summer school and was all paid up to go on the tour. Staying behind with her would have been the ethical thing to do. I did not. I was very young. I was afraid to speak out more than I already did. I have always been a good student and wanted to remain a good student. I wanted to go on that tour. I was very young and had no experience with disability advocacy yet. I was confused and unsure what to do.

I continue to remember this event with great personal guilt and shame. But it taught me something about disability advocacy.

What we can do is act as a community to prevent mistreatment and dehumanization to members of marginalized groups. We have discussed con harassment a lot this year, including what you can do as a bystander, so let us do the same for disability issues.

As I said in Diversity, Disability, Dignity, it is very important that each of us congoers contact the cons we are attending and ask about their disability policy. Also, this is a very good question to ask: “Are you asking attendees whether they have special needs/need accommodations?” All cons should ask attendees regarding their needs, so that attendees on wheelchairs get their ramps, attendees with hearing issues get appropriate aids (e.g. Wiscon has an ASL interpreter – they apply for grants!) etc.

Second, let’s create more public discourse about this. Please consider speaking out online and offline.

Third, if you are on a panel where accessibility issues are not being accommodated properly, get involved. Speak to the organizers (but do NOT pressure the person with disability into accepting help). The person with disability might accept a personally problematic, painful and inappropriate solution because they are likely embarrassed, hurt, unwilling to delay the panel and create issues – in short, they are afraid of being perceived as a burden.

No! It is NOT a burden for cons to provide a ramp, it is no more a burden than providing chairs for rooms, reserving a con suite, providing tea and cookies in the consuite, or any other logistical thing that cons do. Disability access is simply not on the agenda for many cons.

So let’s put it on the agenda. The Other is us. It could be you, or a loved one, mortified and sitting below other presenters, on the floor, in front of a crowd of people who came to listen to your words but can neither see nor hear you. We must uplift each other. The time to care is now.

(People are tweeting and discussing these issues on Twitter using the hashtag #accessiblecons. I am @roselemberg there. Please join us).

7 Comments

  1. […] ETA: Follow-up post: Disability access and being a bystander […]

  2. Selkie says:

    There are folks working to make access a priority, though I wish there were more. This is the entry on Access on the conrunner.net wiki, and it needs more work, but it gives conventions a place to start.
    http://conrunner.net/wiki/index.php?title=Access

    The Geek Feminism Wiki also has good information on Accessibility at Conventions
    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Accessibility

    Selkie

  3. Jennie says:

    I have experienced a related bystander problem at DragonCon. I use a wheelchair for places that require a lot of walking and standing. DragonCon itself has done a decent job of providing reserved seating/wheelchair slots at panels, or helping me navigate the bowels of the hotels that constitute the accessible shortcuts. And many con goers are friendly, helpful people.

    But not all of them. Con hotel elevators are infamously crowded. Many times, people refuse to leave an elevator to make room for a wheelchair. While a few may have an invisible disability themselves, there’s more who will say they don’t want to make room for a wheelchair. They waited so long and really need to get to the dealer room/art show/panel/lunch. So I should wait because they don’t want to take the escalator.

    At crowded panels/appearances, people have complained that it’s not fair that the wheelchair has a designated space at the front. And these people also assume that being in a wheelchair means I’m deaf as well because they’ll voice those complaints at full volume.

    I stopped going to Dragon Con because of this. It’s hard enough to be in a wheelchair while navigating among multiple crowded hotels. The active resistance from fellow con goers was too much to deal with.

  4. sashafeather says:

    Great post!!

    I started a list on Cons with access policies here:
    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Cons_with_Accessibility_Policies

    As this is a Wiki, anyone can add to the list. Obviously just having a policy does not guarantee that a con is accessible, as some of the cons have hostile language, or do not enact their policies.

  5. Aahz says:

    Thanks for driving on this!

    I’ll note that it’s often hard even for those of us in the trenches to think of everything. At a con earlier this year, I was nearly derailed (and would have left early if I weren’t a panelist) because my panel was cross-scheduled against a really REALLY noisy panel next door (with one of those flimsy floor-to-ceiling room dividers between us). That’s something that wouldn’t have occurred to me to make a point about beforehand.

    (I’m deaf, with a cochlear implant.)

    Looking forward to seeing both you and sashafeather at Wiscon next year!

  6. Jim C. Hines says:

    Thanks for continuing this conversation, Rose.

    And yes–we all like to imagine what we’d do as a bystander in various situations, but it’s one thing to calmly sit back and craft the scenario in our mind after the fact. It’s another to be on the spot, in the midst of confusion and conflicting messages and pressures and so on.

    But I also believe that thinking about this sort of thing in advance makes it much more likely people will be able to act in positive ways the next time we find ourselves in that bystander role.

  7. Jesse the K says:

    Great post, thanks!

    As a wheelchair user, I especially appreciate the recognition that there are some days when advocating for oneself in public is just too hard.

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About

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Tiptree, Elgin, Rhysling, and Crawford awards.

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