Written by: Vilissa Thompson and Alice Wong
Alice: So Vilissa, I guffawed *so* hard when I saw your Tweets a few days ago subtly calling out a con. Can you tell me more?
Vilissa: Those tweets were a reaction to the exchange you and the Con organizer had, and my worry surrounding how my own accommodation needs would be responded to. For a Con like SDCC to have a “gatekeeping” approach in organizing panelists was surprising. I have heard stories from our community about problems with accessibility at SDCC, along with others Cons. It is 2017 – you cannot afford to skimp on providing accommodations at your conventions. Disabled Nerds and Blerds are here and shouldn’t be othered in these spaces.
Alice: Yeah. I’m not sure how these sessions work and if this person was an actual organizer. As I exchanged emails with this person it seemed clear to me that: 1) disabled people for this panel they’re organizing were a total afterthought, 2) requests like this made in such an informal and casual manner showed how little they think of us, and 3) the presumptions that folks have on our ability to easily show up with only a few weeks’ notice.
I mean, I didn’t get any details except the actual date of the panel–I don’t know the title of it, who else will be there, and what they’d like me to say. I started to doubt that I was actually invited because it wasn’t exactly clear.
My receipts are below, but here’s the timeline of my exchanges with this person:
- 5/31: I email the person and express interest.
- 6/5: Email reply saying how I seem ‘rad’ with a caveat that SDCC offers panelists a single badge but not assist with travel or accommodation and a question about my availability. I reply that I could ‘try’ to make it but would need at the very least a second badge for my attendant. I also request a reasonable accommodation for virtual participation via Skype or Zoom. I then send a follow-up email trying to get the sense of whether this is a serious ‘real’ invite or if things are still TBD.
- 6/6: Email reply revealing that this person isn’t the actual organizer that has final say on the panelists. This person offers to forward my info with some BS about letting them know about my needs ‘for the future.’
- 6/9: Follow-up by me asking whether the organizers are interested or not. At this point, I haven’t been contacted by anyone else for this panel.
- 6/13: Reply saying the person will ask about ‘the virtual participation thing.’
- After 6/13: *crickets*
I’m not holding my breath. At this point, SDCC is right around the corner. It is impossible for me to go down to SDCC even if they invited me. I know I’m not a celebrity or a famous person, but at the very least SDCC should have clear information on whether they could accommodate me or not. Maybe they never considered me seriously in the first place. Their loss!
Alice: What was your experience like Vilissa? Why is this so fucked up in your opinion?
Vilissa: What concerns me the most is how comic book spaces intentionally harm marginalized people. I call it intentional because that is exactly what it is. There is no reason to be ignorant about something as crucial as accommodations, protecting people from experiencing harassment, or calling out perpetrators who make it their mission to belittle people in our spaces. Yet, these actions occur at cons year after year, with molasses-level efforts of correction. This falls on the organizers – you have a responsibility to establish and maintain a welcoming, safe environment, and we as attendees and panelists have the obligation to hold you accountable.
I emailed the SDCC contact on June 2nd, expressing my interest in learning more about the panel and sharing my expertise in talking about disability representation in media
- 6/5: Received the following response: Thanks so much for getting in touch about the panel! You sound rad. Being a panelist would give you access to an SDCC badge, but the convention, unfortunately, does not assist with travel or accommodation. Can you let me know if you are planning on being in/could be in San Diego on Thursday, July 20th?
- 6/9: I sent the following response: ‘Though I am indeed interested, I do not feel that I can incur the cost for a one-day event like that (I live in South Carolina, and with the short notice, plane tickets would not be inexpensive to come by). I’m disappointed to learn that an event like SDCC cannot assist with such arrangements, especially when it’s seeking the participation of individuals who belong to a community where economic stability can be hard to achieve. Though I do have resources, there are many who are not as fortunate who would be willing to participate on a panel as this. I do hope that SDCC takes these barriers into consideration when seeking marginalized individuals to be a part of its event.
If SDCC is open to allowing virtual participation (through video streaming via Skype or Google Hangouts), that would be something I could do on that day. Virtual participation would allow many disabled people who are interested that cannot travel due to financial or health barriers to be a part of something so important.’
- 6/20: Emailed contact for follow-up; never heard from them: ‘I wanted to know if you were able to find out anything about being able to participate on the panel virtually. As I said in my last email, that would be a better option for me than being physically there.
I was deeply disappointed at the lack of accommodations or alternatives to be considered for a con with such status like SDCC. And even more perturbed at the lack of professionalism from the contact in not following up to let me know what was going on. This is not a favorable reflection on SDCC or the persons involved in organizing their convention.
Alice: I’m disappointed too. I felt really strung along and I’m mad at myself for getting my hopes up. Going to SDCC was something I dreamed about for years. It was on my bucket list but I was hesitant because of the crowds, the heat, and energy required just to get around. My family and I talked about doing this one day but it’s an immense undertaking for me to travel that most folks don’t get:
- I travel by car because flying is too tough on my body and I don’t want to risk any damage to my wheelchair because then I’ll be up shit creek. This would be a whole day effort just to get there from San Francisco-San Diego.
- I have to have a team of folks come with me to provide personal assistance and transportation. All of our schedules need to be coordinated.
- I need to find a hotel or place to stay that’s accessible and during SDCC (at such short notice), I imagine finding a room will be super difficult.
- All of this costs money, resources, and time–something that doesn’t come in copious amounts for lots of disabled folks like myself.
And this isn’t just me being bitchy and feeling pity for myself. I’m sounding off in an effort to make sure this doesn’t happen to other disabled panelists/organizers at SDCC. This is about how cons need to get their shit together if they’re serious about welcoming all diverse communities, including disabled nerds.
Alice: So Vilissa, what are some basics that Con organizers and should follow on how to disabled panelists and con attendees?
Vilissa: For panelists, offer the ability to participate virtually. As I mentioned to the SDCC organizer and during the conversations you and I have had, traveling is a privilege for our community. There are medical, financial, social, and other barriers that prevent us from being able to leave our homes, cities, and states. Organizers should have alternate plans available for panelists who wish to be a part of their events, but may not be able to be there physically. Even for me, as someone who can travel, not having travel and hotel accommodations paid for is a hurdle, especially for Cons that are known to be expensive and when my participation is sought after at the last minute. Though I may have the financial means, that does not mean that your event, in particular, is appropriate for me to incur the costs of attending. Asking potential panelists with enough time to financially plan and prepare for travel is imperative — last-minute notices are NOT ideal and displays an out-of-touch understanding of what we may have to coordinate.
For attendees, Cons need to share the accommodations process on their website/social media pages so that we can prepare to attend. Notice a pattern here – give us time to PLAN so that the experience is as least stressful as possible. Make the accommodations planning process effortless for us at the very beginning to the end — from the time we register to when we attend your Con. Detailing what accommodations you are able to provide will give us the chance to know how accessible your event is to our specific needs. If accessibility is new for your Con, there are disabled people who can act as consultants to educate you so that you can be successful in this area. (I am currently working with an organization to ensure that their conference is accessible for 2018-they are viewing this as a high priority.) Disabled attendees deserve to have a pleasant experience at your event, and doing your best to make that a reality needs to occur.
Alice: YES to all of what you said!! Most of the accessibility information on various con websites are geared for attendees, as they should be. This kind of neglects the fact that disabled people should be panelists and actual organizers. My advice would be the following:
- Include accessibility tips for presenters in any guidelines or information your con provides to panel moderators/participants
- Accept proposals for panels or events by actual disabled people! It doesn’t have to be linked with diversity or disability–we have lots of interests and topics to share.
- Do not have a single token disability-related event or a single disabled panelist and consider yourself ‘woke.’ It’s healthy and positive to have multiple events about access, ableism, and disability at any event.
Vilissa: Here’s another take on Con experiences by fellow disabled Blerd and friend, André J. Daughtry:
‘I’ve been a comic book, video game nerd for as long as I can remember and while I’ve always loved celebrating my fandoms as a person with a disability those fandoms haven’t always loved me in return.
Two years ago I attended my first ever convention New York Comic Con and the treatment I received there tainted and marred what should’ve been an overall joyous experience.
I attended the event with 3 friends of mine and after we made it past the long lines we were greeted by rude, unprofessional, ill-prepared staff with little to no training in how to accommodate disabled patrons.
Two members of my group were let in while one friend stayed with me as the staff had me standing for an hour and a half to get a motorized scooter from a fleet that was clearly visible behind them and not being held in reserve for anyone else.
At the time I primarily used crutches and have trouble standing for long periods of time, the insensitive staff made me answer uncomfortable questions to prove I was disabled enough, I felt utterly disgusted as well as humiliated.
When I asked repeatedly why I couldn’t have access to a mobility device that wasn’t in use I was dismissively told
“You should’ve made arrangements online prior to coming here”
I explained that as this was my first Con I wasn’t aware of the protocol and there was absolutely no information on their site about disability accommodation for new attendees and, if there was, it wasn’t clearly visible.
“Not our problem sir”
Finally, a compassionate event coordinator arrived and demanded that I be seated while she attempted to sort things out, within 10 minutes I was given a new badge to indicate disability and access to a scooter.
My friend and I who waited nearly 3 hours to get in were now able to join our other friends and have fun but this sort of thing shouldn’t have happened in the first place and it’s just one of the reasons I will never go back to NYCC.
PWD [people with disabilities] love things and we appreciate being able to commune with others who share similar passions and interests, but we are people first and foremost.
We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect when we attend these public events just like everyone else.’
Final Note: Neither Vilissa nor Alice ever heard back about the above-mentioned panel.
Related Tweets & Links:
Recent tweets from @HijaDeMadre, Vilissa, and Alice about #SDCC:
They had a dis in comics panel like two yrs ago? It was a great concept but no Dis folks & the creators of the works discussed werent told.
— ㅤ (@HijaDe2Madre) July 3, 2017
— Alice Wong (@DisVisibility) July 3, 2017
Annalee. (February 16, 2016). The Geek’s Guide to Disability. TheBias.com
Joyner, Jazmine. (July 27, 2016). San Diego Comic-Con: All Hype and No Substance? BlackGirlNerds.com
Joyner, Jazmine. (April 10, 2017). How WonderCon Failed Disabled Attendees. WomenWriteAboutComics.com
Lu, Alex. (June 22, 2017). When Fan Conventions Fail Deaf People, They Fail Everyone.TheEstablishment.co Robinette Kowal, Mary. (November 18, 2015). SF/F Convention Accessibility Pledge. MaryRobinetteKowal.com
Convention Accessibility Pledge. MaryRobinetteKowal.com
Wikswo, Quintan Ana. (February 20, 2017). Open Letter to AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] Regarding Disability Rights. Bumblemoth.com
Vilissa Thompson: A macro-minded social worker from South Carolina. Ramp Your Voice! is her organization where she discusses the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled woman, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble. Twitter: @VilissaThompson & @RampYourVoiceWebsite: http://rampyourvoice.com
André J. Daughtry: Born and raised in Brooklyn NY, I’m a lifelong gamer with Spina Bifida. For the past two years, I’ve branched out to streaming on the popular gaming site Twitch. I would like to turn my channel into an outlet for honest, healthy, informative and safe discussions about disabled life as well disability in and while gaming.
Twitter: @Tripping_Crutch Website: https://www.twitch.com/trippingcrutch
Alice Wong: The Founder of the Disability Visibility Project®, a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to creating, amplifying, and sharing disability media and culture. Alice is also a co-partner in two projects: DisabledWriters.com, a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists, and #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement encouraging the political participation of disabled people.
Twitter: @SFdirewolf & @DisVisibilityWebsite: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/