Accessible conventions: what SFWA forgot

Here’s a SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Lee Martindale talking about some of her frustrations with lack of disability access at conventions. This is awesome: SFWA has a person with a disability on a committee working towards providing improved disability access for conventions. But the job isn’t done yet.

The accessibility checklist as stipulated by SFWA appears good for people in wheelchairs. I think it’s reasonable for people with hearing impairment, however, consultation with the hearing impaired community is essential to determine if the checklist is adequate. (Also, in Australia substitute “Auslan” for ASL. There needs to be mention that, for example, Australians don’t speak the same sign language as the US: hearing impaired people have more language barriers.)

SFWA needs to consult with people about vision impairment; their checklist does not consider many important access issues.

For example, there is no mention of disability access to programs, program alterations or visual aids. Conflux in 2015 (my first Conflux) was the first time I could access a program guide onsite during the convention without actually creating my own program guide for disability access (or asking my partner to read one for me).

In 2013, Continuum organisers told me to provide my own disability access to the program after my annual complaint. They committed to providing the timetable information a few weeks prior to the 2014 convention so I could create my own accessible timetable. However, in 2014, Continuum organisers failed to follow through: although I sent reminders, they didn’t give me any information until days prior to the convention. The information they gave me was in a table format that made disability access on a large screen very difficult; it took about 24 hours of solid work to convert that table to an accessible format on my website. (Organisers refused to provide information in a single-column format that could have been enlarged for disability access because that violates their religion or something.)

Historically, last minute changes to Continuum’s program haven’t been disability accessible. Even the signs outside the doors usually aren’t accessible: they’re written in small print and, when panels are moved, the new location of the missing panel is, apparently, a secret omitted from the signs. I’ve wandered around asking people to read signs and give me information, then I’ve arrived late at relocated panels, sometimes missing out because “the room is full” or I’ve had to sit on the floor wedged between someone’s bag and someone else’s pointy heels and I’ve been hit by the door when it opened. Fun times. (Why is it that some of the best panels are in the smallest rooms?)

(Note: in 2011 and 2012 I complained about organisers telling me to move further and further from the front during sessions so more important people could have the closest seats even when those seats were left empty. In 2013 organisers allowed me to sit up the front, so kudos to them for improving disability access.)

The usual location of Continuum Conventions — the dungeon off Swanston Street — is pure hell for me. They have poor quality fluorescent lights that flicker, giving me headaches bordering on migraines and causing excessive eyestrain. I’ve heard that wheelchair access is inconvenient and concealed within the bowels of the building (staff acess only).

Lights on walls, especially behind panels, are also evil as are unmarked uneven surfaces. In 2012 at Rydges I took a tumble, landing on my back. When I spoke to a staff member, her response was “Oh, we have the OTHER step marked; that’s usually where people trip”. No care and no concern from Rydges at all, not even a staff member to help pick me and my gear up off the floor. In 2014 in the 5 star woolstore I stumbled several times over the uneven flooring. The night-lighting in the bar was horrible: I was looking into lights so I couldn’t see much more than light and shadows. This meant my ability to recognise people and not knock over glasses and not walk into furniture was even further diminished, socially isolating me and causing me stress. At times like this, if my partner is with me, he becomes my carer. During this convention he sat in the bar nursing a coffee all afternoon and into the evening so he could be my guide and carer during what was, annually, a very stressful inaccessible convention.

Even navigating the foyer of conventions is hell. I usually walk through with my head down, looking at my feet as a means of trying to avoid collisions. This means I’m socially isolated because my body language is interpreted as “fuck off and leave me alone” instead of “this convention is not accessible and I am stressed out of my mind trying to avoid walking into people”. Clearly marked walkways need to be laid out in foyers allowing people to chat outside the yellow lines while people can move through the marked laneways. This would also help everyone — able-bodied and disabled — move freely to access panels, the bar and the toilets without being forced into an obstacle course.

When a person with a disability tells you what it’s like being disabled, don’t tell them they’re wrong.

Continuum organisers told me annually that they HAD provided disability access to programs, repeatedly refusing to accept that maybe the person with the access issue actually had an access issue.

I was on a panel on Cultural Misappropriation and dared to posit the disabled point of view; a panelist took a straw poll of the room, asking if anyone else saw it that way then turned to me and said, “You’re wrong”. Apparently my Master of Social Science, my years of community service and my personal experience of disability don’t count for anything against the opinion of someone in a middle-class job who is biracial. I shut the fuck up and didn’t contribute to that discussion again although I was on the panel. I seriously thought about walking out but I stayed until the end.

I wish I’d walked out, though: after my earlier rant about the evil albino trope, several people walked up to me and told me that their evil albino was justified. I’m still not sure if some of them thought they were being funny but, seriously? Don’t tell the victim of discrimination, harassment and abuse that you’re reinforcing the trope that made my life a living hell for years. If you’re going to be part of the problem, I don’t want to know. I certainly won’t give you absolution.

Conclusion

I’ve named Continuum as the convention I attended in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. However, I’ve attended lots of different events that weren’t accessible. For example, Arts Access Victoria (a disability arts organisation) refused disability access to powerpoint presentations and handouts for events while providing Auslan interpreters for the hearing impaired. Continuum is in good company but I urge Continuum organisers and ALL events organisers to raise the bar, aiming for equity and diversity.

There is much more that needs to be done to make conventions accessible. Opening the dialogue is the first step. Listening to people with disabilities is essential. Don’t tell us that you’ve arrived; listen to us and work with us for real diversity and inclusion.