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WorldCon and disability access

disability access at Chicon7
See you up there!

The World SF convention started in 1939.  In the past 73 years, it seems no-one has realised that it’s difficult for mobility impaired members to get to panels or that they might need a little extra space. (When I wrote this post I linked to an article complaining about lack of disability access but it’s gone now.)

If the elevators are so crowded that wheelies (mobility impaired people using scooters or chairs) can’t get in them, then I suggest that walkies wait, encouraging them to walk up the bloody stairs!  Apparently no-one has suggested having areas set aside for mobility impaired people who might arrive late due to difficulties navigating crowded corridors.  Of course, there’s no precedent in the real world for provision of disability access in this way.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


  1. That’s really interesting re the pdfs and such. We’ll have to look into that. I doubt we’ll be able to provide print out A3 every time there’s a change, but certainly ensuring the program is provided in such a way that when printed out A3 it comes out clearly is a good thing to ensure.

    Did you use the conference app for Continuum? We’re considering using it for Conflux, although I’m not sure how good it is at dealing with multiple changes.

    We’re also going to be able to provide large print versions of the handbook to folks who request it, if that will be helpful.


    • No I didn’t use the conference app. I don’t use phone apps AT ALL. My phone is for phone calls. All text is too hard, even figuring out what SMS messages/missed messages say is a challenge.

      Has anyone else used the conference app? Does it work for other people? In situations like this, a variety of media can help. The con app might ensure there isn’t a crowd in front of the whiteboard so I can find and read changes 😉

  2. Thanks Tsana and Nalini for both those answers – some great things for us to be aware of and to consider in our planning for the events.

    I know that with my job now, one of the things we do is massive A3 print outs of the program which are put up near registration and on which changes are marked with fluorescent stickers – it’s proven to be the best way to deal with the last minute program changes that are, unfortunately, unavoidable.

    At past Confluxes we’ve had a whiteboard that we’ve written changes on. But it seems that regardless of which one of those we go with, it would also be helpful to have a sign on the room door if there’s been a change.

    From the POV of someone with sight problems, which – the whiteboard or the A3 copy of the program – do you think would be easiest to read and follow, Nalini?

    And how friggin awful that people told you to move – anyone does that to you at Conflux, you come tell me. As someone who needs to be at the front of the room myself (or at least on the left hand side) because of a hearing problem, I’ll be coming down all Zena on their arses.

    • I’d like to see you in the leather outfit 😛

      My response is (as always) it depends. If the A3 printouts are large font and easily accessible they can be good, especially if they’re hand outs (I can take this with me, so I can keep track). A3 programs are really tricky still: I’ve blown up programs for things like Supanova to A3 and they’re still useless for me unless I use a magnifying glass, so it depends on type of font, font size, layout and contrast of lettering to background.

      Whiteboards can be horrendous: things get rubbed off, people use poor quality markers and colours with poor contrast BUT if the marker is good quality (thick & black or dark blue or dark green for example) and the print clear and large, and I don’t have to stand behind a few rows of people to read it, then a whiteboard can be great as well as saving trees. The minion says that’s when Treebeard gets really excited. -_-

      If you notice with Dark Matter, except for some of the headings I’ve used clear type font, the print is not overlaid on images, there is strong contrast and the text is in a single column so there isn’t any scrolling up and down within a page. The idea is to allow magnification for vision impaired people and for non-disabled people to read it on their mobile devices easily. Ideally, I’d like to see convention programs produced in a few different formats including this format so that I could have a copy on my kindle or – when employment allows – I get a Samsung tablet so I can manipulate PDFs. The advantage of this is that the con could email out updated programs and people could access them and carry them on their mobile devices. The grid timetable guide would still be necessary – and I’d still use that on my 26″ monitor at home to figure out my basic timetable – but the single column format is accessible via mobile devices.

      I’d volunteer to construct it, but after spending over $1000 on InDesign CS6 so I could get large fonts, it turns out that Adobe made extra-small fonts standard, and it’s necessary to disable Microsoft Windows 7 disability access features to use Adobe CS6 products. I’m also having ongoing relational problems with Adobe who recently removed all access to PDFs from my computer by deregistering Acrobat. I got access back in the end, but Consumer Affairs are still investigating Adobe’s misrepresentation of their product. Adobe’s lawyers are involved (surprise, surprise) so I might end up ‘owning’ but not being able to use a bloody expensive product. I’m leaning towards turning Dark Matter the zine into a very simple document that basically gives links to the website, as I suffer from serious eyestrain whenever I try using even CS3 with its slightly larger text. Running a website is so much easier and will be easier still once the website has been rebuilt as a purely WordPress site.

  3. I don’t know everything that happened at the convention, but I gave my spot on elevators to folks in scooters at least three times, and never entered when I knew someone in a scooter was waiting. It’s rough on me, as a neuromuscular syndrome makes even walking difficult at times, but seemed the considerate thing to do. I’d imagine that was just the beginning of accessibility problems, though. The Chicago Hyatt Regency is just not laid out reasonably for a cross-tower convention for anyone with mobility issues.

    • If you’ve got a disability that affects your mobility you also have a legitimate need, just like the people in wheelchairs. I’d like to commend you on your thoughtfulness though.

  4. Have been wondering the best route to take regarding mobility access for Conflux 9. Leave space at front of rooms? Leave space at back? Educating the crowd is certainly important. And I know you’ve mentioned issues with sight impaired before. What do sight impaired people need? A convention like Conflux is hampered in terms of money in what we do, but we’d hate to be hampered by ignorance. http://confluxnatcon2013.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/help-make-conflux-as-inclusive-as-possible/

    • I’d say ASK. Always ask what people need.

      Regarding communicating during a convention: Twitter and email are fabulous inventions but don’t expect everyone to access them at the convention. I only ever access twitter, facebook and email at home on my large screen computer. I make lists with plans of when and where to be before I leave home. Any alterations to the program may as well be written in Chinese using smoke signals if they’re not clearly signed on site in large fonts.

      One of the things that really disadvantages me is last minute changes to the program. At Continuum these were on a piece of paper in tiny print that I didn’t even bother trying to read. I went into one panel only to be told by a panelist that the panel I was looking for had been delayed, but when Kelly Link sat down on that panel – she was on the panel that I wanted to attend – that same panelist admitted that the two panels had switched rooms. Signage needs to be clear and current, with changes noted in large print on the doors in text that is not ambiguous: eg. X panel has been moved to Y room at 2:30pm, with a map saying ‘you are HERE and you want to be THERE.’

      If you leave space at the back of the room it might be interpreted as disabled people being second class citizens, but some might prefer to sit at the back – egress for toilets, feeling less conspicuous, other issues. I always try to sit at the front because the further away from anything I am, the less I can see. At my first ever Continuum in 2011, I was really upset when I was repeatedly instructed to move further back so that non-disabled people could have the front rows. At one particular event I was told three times to move further back, so I was sitting in the fourth row, and some of the people who instructed me to move back so they could have the better seats weren’t guests of honour, they just felt they had superior entitlement. After 21 years of marriage, Edward is the one person in the world I recognise most easily, and he estimates that I recognise him at about 20 metres although that’s partially clothing and body language, it’s not facial features. So if I’m not at the front of a room, I can forget about seeing visuals, pictures on the screen, writing on the screen, facial expressions, everything. It’s an audio experience.

      From the feedback at Chicon7, it seems that non-disabled people were using elevators before disabled people, and probably weren’t moving out of the way of wheelchairs in the corridors. Educating the crowd on courtesy in these situations is very important, while also remembering that some of us may be less observant.

      In a stressful situation like a convention in a strange environment, a lot of my energy goes into coping. At Continuum 2011, the lighting was dreadful, no natural light, the worst kind of fluorescent lights, many of which were flickering. Non-disabled people may not have noticed some or all of the flickering, but I assure you my very minor super-power is seeing the flickering before non-disabled people. Not fun. I had massive headaches all weekend.

      At Continuum 2012, I interviewed Joanne Anderton then walked her and Russ down to the train station so they could go to Notions, then I rushed back up to Rydges to interview Margo Lanagan. I walked up the street, following my established path without incident, then walked inside. As I walked through the bar I relaxed, thinking I was safe now I was inside, only to fall down that blasted step between the bar and the carpeted area. I fell and rolled. Luckily my camera wasn’t damaged and I was only bruised and shaken. After that, two things pissed me off more than realising that the bar was booby trapped: 1) no-one was there to see me and help me up and 2) when I reported it to a staff member I was treated like I was the person with the problem instead of them violating health and safety regulations by having a step inside without any warning. the staff member said, ‘Oh but we mark that step over there because that’s the one people usually trip over,’ as if they only need to mark one of their two booby traps.

      The net result at both Continuums was that I had worse than usual headaches, I was stressed and I felt pretty isolated. Because so much of my energy and focus goes into navigating a strange environment and (hopefully) not having accidents, I’m less likely than ever to notice someone else needing help – like a wheelchair coming up behind me wanting to get past – or to even recognise anyone. If you’ve got a bucket of energy and 75% of it is going into navigation and not having an accident, that leaves 25% for attending panels, recognising faces and trying to fit in when people aren’t being welcoming. Every time people said hi and welcomed hubby and I into their social circle, it was a blessing.

      These are a few general thoughts. I’m sure Julie can give great advice on accessibility for wheelchairs. I can give general advice on accessibility for vision or at least what questions might be good to ask, but with vision there is such a huge range of impairments and needs that it’s not possible to make one size solution fit all. It’s great to know that efforts are being made and thought is being put into making these conventions more disability-friendly.

    • To add to what Nalini said, a hearing-impaired friend of mine inadvertently caused a minor shitstorm when she inquired about disability access for supanova panels. What she needed was to be able to sit in the front two rows (or stand or sit/stand at the side since it transpired the front two rows were reserved for people with VIP tickets) so that she could be close enough to lipread without having to just watch her interpreter the *entire* time but apparently it was too hard to organise that in advance (she was checking to make sure she would be able to get anything out of the panels before spending money on a ticket). It was all sorted out eventually (and I think the guy manning their twitter account might have been forcibly unvolunteered after the abuse he doled out) but with far too much stress and tears for my friend.

      Like Nalini said, different people need different things for different reasons. Perhaps you could have the volunteers in each panel room making sure that people who need to sit at the front are able to (and beating back anyone who gets shitty about it).

      • I personally think if you’re disabled you shouldn’t have to pay for premium tickets to enable a basic level of enjoyment of an event. It’s unfortunate the Supanova people weren’t more proactive, but it’s good they came through in the end. People getting shitty is definitely an issue, whether it’s shitty about allowing the person in the wheelchair first trip on the elevator ‘I was here first, it doesn’t matter that I’m capable of walking up the stairs!’ or if it’s about sitting at the front to lip read or see. Funnily enough, when I was at school and university, I usually didn’t have problems with needing to sit up the front…


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