Snapshots of the Dark Side of Conventions (disability discrimination)

I’ve attended several speculative fiction conventions in the past 10 years. They’ve all had disability access issues. Most of them have been inaccessible and isolating. This year I impulsively decided to attend next year’s Continuum, an Australian speculative fiction convention. Lauren as Continuum on twitter promptly made it clear I’m not welcome. Later Lauren asked me, in email, to educate her about disability access for free. Then she dismissed my concerns and said Continuum provides its program in A3 format although I already said A3 is inaccessible. Unfortunately, Continuum is not alone in being inaccessible. The following are snapshots of my experiences at speculative fiction conventions, demonstrating lack of disability access and responses from nondisabled people. I hope this post will inspire convention organisers to do better.

If you are disabled, please share your stories of disability access and/or barriers in the comments. 

Text between round brackets ( ) is my internal dialogue. Text in green was included in green in the email I copied/pasted here; color is used to differentiate between recommendations and explanatory notes. I cannot quote verbal communications verbatim so anything not copied and pasted is the gist of what occurred, not a direct quote.

Update: my records show that my last Continuum was in 2014 at the Woolshed (I think that’s what it was called, or it was the woolshed and has since been renamed). Therefore that’s the year I gave away a ticket to Continuum and created Continuum’s first ever electronic program.

Every conference ever

People block hallways and walkways preventing disabled people from moving freely through crowds. People push in front of wheelchair users to get into elevators instead of giving priority to disabled people. If I bump into people while trying to move around, people are critical and sometimes even aggressive, and yet they won’t move out of the fucking way.

2010 Utopias, Dystopias and Catastrophe conference at Monash University.

FUCKING FABULOUS. Although the program was not accessible there were ways around it and the program was small, with only 3 or 4 rooms running simultaneously at the most and verbal cues given over microphones. This conference was manageable.

2010 WorldCon

I didn’t bother trying to interpret the program. I stayed in the academic stream’s room until the flu and bronchitis combined forced me to miss the rest of the conference.

2011 Continuum

This convention was held in a basement with no natural light and poorly maintained florescent lighting that flickered constantly IN EVERY ROOM. By Sunday if anyone had offered me morphine for my headache, I would have loved them for life.

Continuum: Here is the program.
Me: I can’t read the program.
Continuum: You should have read it at home and planned ahead then.

In the main conference room, the front row was marked ‘reserved’ although a lot of those seats were never taken. I sat in the second row.
Continuum: You can’t sit there, you’re not a guest. Move further back.
I moved back a row.
Continuum: Not there, I told you to move back. Now move BACK.
Me: Where to then?
Continuum: There I suppose (about 4 rows from the front from memory).

Later

A different Continuum person: You can’t sit there. Move further back.
Me: …

Many of the seats in front of me were never taken but I wasn’t allowed to sit anywhere I might have been able to see overheads etc.

2011 Tights and Tiaras

Another Monash University feminist conference examining speculative fiction and fantasy. There was only one room so reading the program was not an issue. They provided food with dietary requirements met. It was freezing though. On the second day I rugged up. A lot.

2012 Continuuum (I think this was the NatCon held at Rydges)

Kathryn Linge bullied me on Twitter, declaring the reason was that I was going to attend Continuum and she wouldn’t attend. I was so upset by her attacks I nearly didn’t go but people like Jo Anderson encouraged me to go. I love Jo for that.

I arrived early on Friday ready to interview Rowena Cory-Daniels and Marianne de Pierres. Walking into the barista/bar area and down the length of the room, I looked around for a good spot to sit in the otherwise empty room. Stepping from the wooden floor to the carpet, I fell. There was a high step there with no indicator and no warning. After a nasty tumble I landed on my back. No one came to help. No one came to see why I was crying. When I found a staff member to report the accident, she treated me like I was stupid and refused to accept a report.

Wheelchair users could not access the bar/barista because of the step.

Me: I read the program at home and planned ahead but THE PROGRAM HAS BEEN CHANGED.
Continuum: There are signs on the doors.
Me: The signs are in tiny print. Can someone read this sign for me?
Person: That sign says X is in this room.
Me: What about Y? Does it say where Y panel was moved to?
Person: No.
Me: Please tell me where Y is.
Continuum: Changes are in the foyer.
Me: Where?
Continuum: In tiny print over there or in whiteboard marker that is either smudged, illegible or has been removed from the whiteboard. I’m the registration volunteer but I either can’t or won’t help you.

Later…

Me: The program is not accessible. Program changes are not accessible.
Continuum: Yes it is. We had an accessible version in the foyer.
Me: It’s a bit late to tell me that AFTER THE CONVENTION.

2013 Continuum

Continuum: We have accessible program changes in the foyer
Me: A4 to A3 copies of microscopic print ARE NOT ACCESSIBLE.
Continuum: Too bad.
Me: I’ve complained before.
Continuum: No you haven’t. No one has ever complained before.
Me: I have. I have complained.
Continuum: No one has ever complained before.
Me: ….

Jenny (not her real name), a wheelchair user, was stuck in the foyer waiting to go downstairs.
Me: Do you need help with the elevator?
Jenny: No, I can’t get my chair in that elevator. I have to wait for staff to take me through the staff only area to the cargo elevator.

Later downstairs

Jenny: I’m waiting for staff to come to take me through the bowels of the building to a distant wheelchair accessible toilet. Staff are too busy to help at the moment. I need to go and I’ve been waiting for a while.

Continuum: We don’t discriminate against disabled people, we have a person in a wheelchair on the committee. Our convention is entirely disability accessible. We know this because Jenny doesn’t complain.

I have to mention here that Continuum members used to vote for awards, called Chronos Awards. This year I knew I was nominated but I didn’t expect to win. I was sitting in the audience and I was mouthing along with the MC, adding who I thought would win my category. Thus, when my name was called I sat there looking like a fish with my mouth open. I hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech so I just got up, said thank you, and sat down again. Everyone who nominated me and voted for me TOTALLY ROCKS. Not everyone at Continuum discriminates!

Cultural Misappropriation Panel at Continuum 2013

Me: I hate the ‘evil albino’ trope and this is why…

Later…

Me: I love Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi because it’s about disability and she’s emancipated.
Stephanie Lai: I didn’t interpret it that way. Straw poll — did any of you interpret it that way? No? Nalini, YOU’RE WRONG.
Me: …

After the panel, about 6 people rushed up to me to tell me one after the other that their evil albino in their writing was justified. By the time I escaped, I was really pissed off. For more on this panel, see this post.

In the lounge later…

Me: the program is not accessible. Again. Program changes are not accessible. Again.
Person: You should do something about it.
Me: Ok I will.

2014 Continuum

Continuum: We refuse disability access to the program because it’s too hard.
Me: Send me the program a few weeks before the convention. I will make an accessible copy.
Continuum: Ok.
Me: This is a reminder. I cannot create an accessible version of the program without a program.
Me: Again. A reminder. SEND ME THE PROGRAM.
Me: Send me the program. I cannot make an accessible copy unless YOU. SEND. ME. THE. FUCKING. PROGRAM.

Three or four days before the conference they finally sent me the program. I spent days working on an accessible and useful online version.

Continuum: Now you’ve given yourself a migraine because we didn’t send you the program in a timely manner, forcing you to work for far too many consecutive hours on developing an accessible program, we’ll send you criticism after criticism because it’s not perfect. Then we’ll copy and paste your program onto our website.

At this Continuum, lights in the bar/cafe area were down at eye level. This meant once the sun went down so no natural light came through the skylight, all I could see were the lightbulbs and shadows elsewhere. The noise level was high so trying to identify people by voice — or even hear what they had to say — was difficult.

Conference rooms were off a walkway that used to have steps up to the rooms. Venue management had placed ramps up to every door with NO indication that there were ramps or where they began and ended. The entire conference I tripped over the ramps. They should have just raised the height of the walkway but that’s too obvious.

There was an issue with my ticket to Continuum that I requested be fixed. I also sent emails asking for it to be fixed and asking them to notify me when it was fixed. They didn’t bother. I missed Friday and most of Saturday, only arriving mid-afternoon then asking to be allowed in without a ticket for a panel on which I was scheduled to speak. That was when they finally told me my ticket had been fixed so they would allow me in. I missed nearly half of the conference because of this ticket problem.

Then I missed panels I wanted to attend because I couldn’t find them. As usual.

2015 Conflux

I really enjoyed this Conflux convention. Disability access to the program was not available. However, it was a small convention so talking to people helped me learn what was on. My partner also read the program for me. And when there were program changes, those staffing reception were actually helpful.

Before the convention ended, Leif asked me to organise a panel on disability for 2016. Unfortunately, when a nondisabled woman learnt I was organising this panel she harassed and bullied me on Facebook and in email. She told me repeatedly that she would not allow me to organise this panel because she isn’t disabled so she would do it instead. She graciously informed me that her panel would have only one token disabled person on it, a person without Disability Studies research or disability activism training. However, she said, if I guaranteed not to share my thoughts on misappropriation of disability in speculative fiction, she might allow me to sit on the panel. Sit in silence, I assume. I withdrew from Conflux 2016 and haven’t been back.

2016 CSFG

After Leif invited me to organise a panel on disability for the 2016 Conflux, I was gobsmacked when she gave me feedback on a short story telling me that story was not speculative fiction because it had disability issues in it. I assured her it was spec fic. She said it didn’t matter: no disability issues are permitted in near-future SF (presumably only if the writer is disabled because she doesn’t seem concerned about nondisabled writers writing disability in contemporary or near-future SFF stories). Again she told me to find another writing group. I refused but I withdrew from participating in the CSFG groups that I was enrolled in. I planned to wait until Leif was no longer president then re-apply to those groups. Instead, Leif organised the treasurer to issue a refund of my membership and my husband’s. I guess being married to a person with a disability who writes disability issues is as much a crime as writing disability issues as a disabled person. [snark]

Later, I wrote to the next president of the CSFG. Instead of replying that he would ensure the CSFG did not kick me out for writing disability issues again, he was combative. I thought about taking it further but, in the end, they had made it clear I am not welcome. This is not my idea of a supportive writing group.

2019 Continuum

Me on twitter: Please indicate support for a panel on disability with disabled panelists. Please support me, with my 3 degrees in counselling and social science, my years of disability activism including training via Reins, Rope and Red Tape, the disability arts advocacy training program, being on that panel.

Lauren as Continuum: We have other people who would be on a panel like that instead of you.

(If they are as qualified than me or more qualified than me then great. I’ll listen and report on the panel discussion. However, I don’t know of anyone in the Australian SFF community who is as qualified as me to speak on this topic. Nondisabled people writing/creating stories with disabled characters often receive accolades while #OwnVoices people are barred by gatekeepers and their works are dismissed. A bit like you’re doing here.)

Lauren of Continuum in email

What I’m thinking is that rather than ask just you what you need, I’m going to put out a survey via Continuum’s social media to check in with the wider community, since the more feedback I get, the better. But because I’m aware that you’re very across a number of accessibility concerns, I wanted to ask you whether you have any suggestions for specific questions that you would find useful on such a survey.

My email reply

Hi Lauren

I did the assoc deg PWE from 2013-2015 at RMIT so that was probably me. And although RMIT was a nightmare until 2015 when the Human Rights Commission got involved, RMIT was FAR MORE ENLIGHTENED than the University of Canberra who destroyed CCTV footage of a staff member assaulting me and then accused me of violence because, according to UniCanberra, reporting the assault to police is violence; calling the perpetrator a hypocrite on social media is violence; etcetera… Sigh.

Between the above and my ongoing research, I’m even more across disability issues than I was after I completed my 3 degrees in counselling and social science. However, I cannot speak for the whole community; even people with vision impairment will have different kinds of vision impairment to myself. But I’m happy to try to help!

Questions I recommend: 

* Do you identify as having a disability or being disabled?

* What is/are your type/s of disability? (offering multiple choice will NOT work)

* How can we be of assistance:

Format of program

  • electronic
  • large print
  • online

Do you need wheelchair access?

 This is VERY important and if you want to be an accessible conference having Julia wait in the foyer for staff to take her through the bowels of the building is NOT disability access. Wheelchair access should be as easily accessible as walking into the building and as easy as walking up stairs for nondisabled people. This includes ensuring disabled toilets are not used for storage and are not filled with eg baby change tables. For more information as well as an entertaining story I recommend watching Speechless s02e15 U-N– UNFORGETTABLE P-A— PAIN and s02e18 N-O— NOMINEE. Yes I know it’s a comedy. The disability community have been RAVING about that comedy since it was released, unlike the other one that set out to compete (unsuccessfully) with Speechless.

Please note that carrying a wheelchair user is NOT acceptable and will increase Continuum’s liability to both the user and those attempting to carry them.

Is your mobility affected by vision impairment?

In 2012 I fell off the raised platform around the bar in [Continuum’s] venue because there was nothing to indicate that the wood was a step above the carpet. All steps should be marked with tactiles (raised bumps) or at the very least if you absolutely cannot find a venue with that, ensure that bright warning tape marks the edge of the drop. Several layers of tape can be a tactile warning when approaching, which, combined with a personal orientation tour, could prevent injuries. Also note that while you’re responsible for selecting the venue, the venue is responsible for DDA compliance and injuries.

Also, if you go somewhere like the Wool Shed again (I think that’s what it was called), ensure that ramps are marked with tape — I kept tripping because of unexpected changes in slope.

How would you prefer to learn about program changes (these can happen at the last minute)

Large print signs on the previously scheduled door redirecting you

Large print notice in the foyer (and I do NOT mean A4 -> A3 in tiny print as in previous years; large print should be ~ 20 pt font in a sans serif font like Helvetica or Arial, which would be easier for everyone to read when 

crowds gather to read changes)

Ask volunteers in the foyer for program changes (this means they MUST be kept fully informed unlike previous years)

SMS/Whats App/Slack…  (Pick one to make it easy, just make sure you’re not sharing people’s contact details within the app. If you can send notifications without sharing people’s contact details this would be good for EVERYONE.)

Email. Please note: some program changes will probably occur at the last minute.

Auslan signing (can Continuum afford someone to sign for the Deaf? If not, include a note here that, due to financial constraints, Continuum is unable to offer signing services. Also note that if someone needs signing and you’re going to try to provide it, there will be a limited number of sessions that must be arranged beforehand. Be advised that normal protocol is for TWO signing professionals to work in 15 minute shifts. Also, if you’re talking to someone through a signer, you talk TO THE DEAF PERSON not to the interpreter.)

Ask your venue if they have a hearing loop! Provision is good advertising for the convention.

One final thought for Deaf people: you could offer to have someone transcribe the session as it happens and put the text on the screen. This would be challenging but at least it’s possible for volunteers to do this instead of having to engage professionals. You could even test drive Voice to Text software to see how successful that might be with the technology available.

In sessions, to provide you with equitable enjoyment, how can we help?

reserve seating (and reserve the seating! I’ve been forced to sit on the floor near a door, stand up the back etc. You could legitimately allow seats to be reallocated at the start or 5 minutes in, but only if you inform the reserver prior and only if you ensure that eg wheelchair users and/or vision impaired people have access via being able to walk through the hallways, use the elevator and the location has not been moved at the last minute. 

  • in the front row
  • middle row
  • back row
  • near the door
  • on the centre aisle

Overheads, powerpoints and handouts: do you have accessibility needs, for example, do you need

  • electronic format via email

PDF
Word
Office
e-book (added)
PPT (where applicable)

* Would you like us to contact you to discuss your disability access needs? How? Phone, email, text etc.

If you’re serving food, you need to ask for food allergies and requirements. These usually include vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, lactose free and nuts. If someone is risking anaphylactic shock, make damn sure you have verbally and in writing REPEATEDLY informed the caterer. Also ensure that allergy foods are safely segregated from one another, set apart from ’normal’ food, and for the love of all that is good, ENSURE ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE REQUESTED THIS SERVICE TAKE THIS FOOD. I’ve missed out on lactose free food because people eating normal food thought my food looked good too and helped themselves while I was still in line. This happens A LOT. (Not just to me.)

Also if you’re somewhere like that dreadful basement of the Welcome Hotel (or something, you know the one where Continuum tends to go when it’s not a NatCon), take a tour the week before and MAKE SURE they replace all flickering lights. Their lights are ABSOLUTELY DREADFUL. I know I see fluorescents flickering before they get bad enough for others to see the flickering but that basement is a torture chamber for me with their poorly maintained lights.

I recommend rooms eg the foyer and hallways have spaces that are designated walkways and people be asked to keep the walkways clear. Gaffer tape or cheap masking tape could mark the boundaries of these spaces within large rooms. I find it very difficult to navigate without bumping into people – my eyesight is getting worse – and people stand around blocking traffic. I’m only using a cane; imagine how hard it is for people in wheelchairs to get from A to B! You’ll find if you do this, a lot of nondisabled people will appreciate using those walkways too. Universal access makes a better experience for everyone.

I also recommend a quiet room for use of people with disabilities. This can be for time out for those with anxiety, pain, or simply the ’normal’ exhaustion that comes with being disabled in a nondisabled environment for hours in a day. The games room is not suitable, this room needs to be a retreat. In addition to the quiet room and a wheelchair accessible toilet THAT IS ACTUALLY WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE, it would be good to include a small room that is big enough for wheelchair access to be used as a change room if you are expecting people with certain types of disability or if you’re expecting a lot of disabled people. Some people may have medical needs that would be better carried out here or could be carried out here if the toilet is being used. There usually aren’t many wheelchair accessible toilets and, from memory, that hellish basement place sent Julia on an epic journey to find the toilet. (Caps because Arts Access, a disability arts org in Adelaide, used its toilet as storage because the CEO was not disabled.)

The above is just off the top of my head and is all Disability 101 so I expect I’ve missed points while providing you with some basics. I’m glad to be able to help and I’ll flick you an email if/when I remember I missed something crucial.

best
Nalini

The following dust-up via email and twitter

Lauren: I’m going to have to look at our A3 programs (we started doing A3 wall programs at three locations around the venue) and see if I can bump up the readability; at present I’m enlarging them from A4 on the photocopier, but I’m sure I can find a way to be sure the text is definitely large enough.

(I already said A4 to A3 copies of text is NOT ACCESSIBLE. Why are you even talking about this as access? Continuum has repeatedly refused large print — 18pt or higher — and once you realise the logistics of large print you won’t do that either.)

Lauren: Gillian (Polack) was good enough to tell me they need to be a bit lower on the wall. We’ve also got A3 venue maps on the wall (we laminated them and I just wipe off any changed information and update it year by year). We have two large whiteboards for program changes/hosted meal announcements/similar changes.

(Again, I said A3 is NOT ACCESSIBLE. And don’t get me started on SHINY LAMINATED MATERIAL being inaccessible to me, a person with albinism.)

Lauren: We’ve been at the Jasper Hotel the last few years now and the physical accessibility has been great. Julia can get everywhere, and we had a blind wheelchair user with his carer who also reported no issues. But your point about tape on the edges of ramps and steps is excellent because we had a few people stumble on the ramp onto the stage in the big function room this year (and not just because they were drinking during karaoke!). We’ve had a quiet room for at least two of those years and it’s a real blessing for unwinding. It’s across the hallway from one of the large function rooms so there’s some noise escape, but it’s well away from the main con floor.

(You say two other disabled people ‘reported no issues’. Did you ask? Have you ever specifically asked disabled attendees for feedback? When they’ve given feedback, like I have, has it been dismissed like Continuum dismissed my feedback?)

Lauren: The only downside to the wheelchair accessible toilet is that it’s on the ground floor. At the Jasper, the spaces we use are mostly on the first floor, but there are two elevators and even during busy period the wait time is rarely more than two minutes.

(‘The only downside’ — have you looked? Have you audited the extra time it takes to get to that toilet or are you just basking in your nondisabled privilege? Would you hire a venue where all attendees had to go to a different floor to use the toilet? If not, why is that ok for wheelchair users? Thank God I don’t need an accessible toilet.)

Lauren: I love the designated walkways idea! There’s certainly room for chats to happen off the main floor, and it would be so helpful for people to find reg desk. The venue does have an electronic sign to tell people where reg desk is, but taped out walkways would be even better. I’ll make a note for our Venue Liaison to ask if we can put tape down, but since our techies use tape for cables I’m sure it will be fine.I even have white gaffer tape that should be nice and clear as opposed to black on fairly dark carpet. And I could mark squares in the function rooms for designated wheelchair spaces! You’ve really sparked some thoughts here.

(So you love the bleeding obvious idea that I’ve mentioned several times in previous years that benefits EVERYONE but you’re being obstructive about disability access that does not benefit nondisabled people.)

Lauren as Continuum on Twitter: I’m sorry that this was the inference taken from the communication with Continuum. No access was refused. The A3 wall programs are just one of four ways to access the program, which also includes electronically; I hope that clarifies this! — Lauren

(Four ways? Yes, you indicated in email that there are four INACCESSIBLE WAYS for nondisabled people to access the program: in tiny print. NOWHERE in email does Lauren say “Continuum will provide programs electronically”. She flips this off on Twitter in such a way that I wonder if this is fact or fake news to deflect legitimate criticism.)

Me: When you ask a person with a disability to educate you for free about disability and that person says “A4 to A3 copies are not disability access” you should NOT say “We’ll provide the program, changes and sitemap in A3”. QED. I notice you haven’t apologised.

Lauren as Continuum: (1/3) To publicly reiterate the email response sent through this afternoon (2:29 pm): I’m sorry if the fact that I only replied to parts of your email implied that to you. (2/3) As for the other issues you have raised such as the program size and format, the reason I gave you the details on the current state of affairs was not to say this is the be all and end all of the changes, but rather to facilitate discussion.

(So refusing disability access by telling me the program is available in inaccessible A3 is ‘facilitating discussion’? How is that privilege working for you? Bear in mind that Continuum consistently refused disability access EVERY OTHER YEAR I ATTENDED. And they refused to accept that I made complaints let alone that my complaints are valid. Continuum violates the Disability Discrimination Act.)

Lauren as Continuum: (3/3) Again, I’m sorry if it implied that that was the end of the line. — I had initially responded from work during a break and evidently needed to take more time and care with my wording, and I apologise again for that. — Lauren

(Again, I said A3 is inaccessible. You said “Oh but we have A3 in lots of places”. You never said “We will provide an electronic copy of the program.” Re-reading through twitter, Lauren says the program is available in multiple formats and once on Twitter she mentions electronic copies, doing so in such a way that this appears to be deflection of criticism and may not be a plan in motion. She originally said they’ll discuss larger print, which Continuum has discussed previously BEFORE REFUSING LARGE PRINT. I asked for electronic copies because providing an accessibly sized print copy would be very difficult.)

Me: If you actually intended to be inclusive and not be bigots who ensure disabled people feel unwelcome, you could have handled this differently. In light of my previous 4 or 5 attendances, experiencing disability discrimination every time, you could have been less of a bitch.

Lauren as Continuum on Twitter: We do not accept abusive language or misogynistic slurs directed at members, including committee members, regardless of their gender, and as we have initiated your refund, we shall not be engaging in further dialogue. -C16 concom

Me: Apparently being called out for being bigots is a misogynistic slur. Or is it ‘misogynistic’ because the bigot is a woman? I’m not sure.

I’ll probably return to this disaster later with another essay. I’ve done this information dump now so I can leave it instead of this eating me alive.  

2 Comments

  1. Oh wow. you are kinda lost in your own world aren’t you?

    The schedule has been digital and online and they tweeted it out multiple times over the past two years from the their main twitter account. Its how I found it and used it. How oblivious to the real world are you?

    You just seem to like being the centre of attention involved in pointless drama. Suggest you get someone with some stability to talk you out of your bullshit, as you are thoroughly lost up your own arse.

    1. Dear Hank/Lauren

      In this comment you are not only offensive but you also admit to being involved in Continuum. In your subsequent emails — that I’m happy to post online — you deny having any involvement in Continuum, deny knowing who Lauren is and claim that some spiteful person posted a link to this blog post on a Facebook group that does not exist. You’re also harassing me in these emails. I don’t know what you hope to achieve with your false and self-contradictory claims but I suggest you check your privilege and Dark Matter Zine’s harassment and abuse policy.

      — Editor.

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