I participated this past weekend on a panel at World Fantasy Convention 2015 in which one of the panelists was in a wheelchair. Problem was that the dais was reachable only by steps, with no ramp. No arrangements had been put into place in advance, even though those running the convention had been apprised of the need for a ramp well beforehand. More to the point, ramps to the stages in all meeting rooms could have been installed as a routine matter. Instead, my co-panelists and I were expected to arrange ourselves such that four of us would be sitting on the dais with the fifth person situated below us. We were never told how exactly we could have the sort of conversation we wanted to have with that type of arrangement. As you can see, we elected instead to move our chairs to the floor in front of the dais where we would all be seated together.
In case there is anyone who doesn’t understand why barriers to access are problematic, let me take a moment to explain. These unnecessary hurdles are detrimental to everyone, not just the very person who already has more than enough to contend with when traveling to participate in a convention or conference. Making last-minute arrangements to deal with this is also a distraction that comes just when all presenters are attempting to focus on the topic they are about to address. Failing to make appropriate arrangements is unfair to those in the audience who have come to hear the discussion and participate in it. It also has an adverse effect upon those with disabilities-whether permanent or temporary-who may decide to stay home, having concluded that participating in, or simply attending, an SFF convention is not worth the hassle. Lack of access sends a message that those with disabilities are not welcome in the SFF community on their own terms. That, in turn, harms all of us when we are denied the ability to listen to the voices of those whose perspectives on the world are born of experiences different than those of able-bodied people.
What can we do? I implore everyone who is contemplating attending a SF or fantasy convention–not just those with disabilities and not just those expecting to be presenters–but everyone to make inquiries in advance as to what arrangements are being made and what the convention’s policies are with regard to reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities. We all need to make clear that disregard and cavalier treatment are no longer acceptable.
For those who point out that many conventions are run by fans, not professional event organizers, and for those who may feel at the mercy of the facilities over which they have no control, there are some excellent resources:
A Guide for Accessible Conferences
One final note: It is not my intention to single out one particular convention or those who gave so generously of their time and energy this year. I truly appreciate their efforts. Rather, this is something that I hope we can work collectively to improve.