A while back John Scalzi made a public pledge not to attend conventions without a harassment policy, and many authors signed on.
I’ve decided to add a new pledge(1) for myself: I won’t attend a convention that doesn’t have an accessibility policy.
The proximate cause of this decision is the abysmal experience Mari Ness had at yet another World Fantasy Convention. She’s the one who has spoken up the most about this, but far from the only one it affects: as she says there, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the Guest of Honor, was using crutches. Many of our most respected writers are elderly and use assistive devices; Gene Wolfe was using a cane. Injury can strike anyone; Scalzi was in Australia when he tore a calf muscle, requiring a combination of crutches, cane, and wheelchair to get about and get home. (How many ankle surgeries have I had, again?) And those are just the authors, then ones a convention might invite and then either lose or massively inconvenience because of bad accessibility. It doesn’t even touch on the fans who might want to attend, but stay home because they just can’t face the hurdles imposed by trying to get around or enjoy themselves while present. But if you make it more accessible for them? You may be surprised how many show up.
I think it’s easy for this one to slide under the radar because many of us are lucky enough not to be affected. In the wake of Mari’s recent experiences, though, I found myself thinking: saying “well, I don’t need accessibility assistance; therefore I don’t care about the policy” is kind of like saying “well, I’ve never been harassed at a con; therefore I don’t care about the policy.” Both of those statements are crap. Do I care about my fellow writers and fans being able to attend and enjoy themselves? Yes. In that case, I need to make sure they’re welcome.
So: if a con does not have an accessibility policy, I will not attend.
Of course, it isn’t enough for me to just say that. What do I mean by “an accessibility policy”? What kinds of measures does a con need to take for me to say I’m willing to attend? Fortunately, other people have put a lot of thought and effort into these matters. Tanya Washburn was kind enough to help me out with this, pointing me at several resources: Geek Feminism Wiki has a page linking to several sub-topics, Conrunner.net has a page, and the WisCon policy is generally agreed to be the best example out there. Just reading through those things can teach you a lot.
The first purpose served by an accessibility policy is to inform people. Maybe the policy says “we regret to say that we cannot arrange wheelchair access to X part of the venue.” That may be disappointing to a wheelchair-bound attendee — but it’s a lot less disappointing than showing up to the con and only then finding out that they can’t go everywhere they want to. If you say you will not be providing gluten-free food in the con suite, then gluten-sensitive attendees know to bring their own victuals. Etc. And providing this information is, quite frankly, not very difficult. It costs no money (you’re already paying for your con website); it requires only a small amount of time and effort. But writing it up is a really good exercise, because it will prod you to think about these issues and consider whether you can’t make some adjustments — which is the second purpose of such a thing; it makes those of us who don’t deal with a given issue more aware of it, which in turn can help us do better.
And that brings us to the third purpose of the policy, which is to actually, y’know, make things accessible. I think that my pledge should include some minimum standards of access, without which I will strongly question whether I should attend. I don’t expect everything: for example, the policy for my friendly local FOGcon acknowledges that they cannot afford to pay for interpreters (e.g. ASL sign), and they haven’t been able to find any volunteers. That, for me, is not a make-or-break issue. Ditto their comment on fluorescent lighting, which is ubiquitous in the kinds of hotels and convention centers that cons take place in; expecting a con to somehow deal with that problem is not realistic.
But some things require very little effort and money, and I think it’s fair to expect them at any con that gives half a damn about access. At the moment, for me, these include:
1) A con staff member who is the designated accessibility contact. This person is in charge of making whatever arrangements the con will be implementing, answering questions from guests or attendees in advance of the con, and handling problems if they arise during the con. If the hotel has locked the door at the top of the wheelchair ramp to the restaurant, this is the person who gets that unlocked. Etc.
2) If panels or other program items take place on a stage, this stage must have a ramp. This was a major issue at WFC this past year — and the most galling thing is, if the con had spoken to the hotel about it ahead of time, ramps could have been arranged with very little difficulty or cost. If for some reason your venue charges through the nose for such things even with advance notice, reconsider whether your panels really need to be on a stage.
3) In larger rooms, provide microphones for panelists. There are some panelists who project well enough to be heard by everyone in the room. The number of such people is rather smaller than the number of panelists who think they can project well enough. Providing mikes reduces the interruptions where somebody has to say “could you repeat that, please?” and the disappointing panels where the audience only heard half of what was said. And again, venues will usually supply and set up these things, as long as you say you’ll need them.
4) Make sure aisles are wide enough for people using mobility devices, and mark out space for them in the seating area. This can be difficult in tiny panel rooms, but in larger ones it shouldn’t be a problem. Blue paper tape is cheap and easy to use for marking pathways and “parking” zones. You can also use it to stripe chairs at the front for the use of those with visual or hearing difficulties.
5) Signage on food in the con suite, green room, and/or banquet. Even if you can’t provide vegan or gluten-free options or whatever, you can at least tell people what’s in front of them, so they don’t have to go out of their way to find out.
Those, I think, are the bare minimum elements I want to see at cons. Other things are great! Other things should be encouraged at every turn! (If there are other things you think should also be on the make-or-break list, let me know!) But if the accessibility policy for a given con doesn’t mention these five things, I’m going to ask. And if the answer is “no, we’re not doing that” . . . I will probably say that in that case, I decline to attend.
And finally, the fourth purpose of a policy like this is to provide accountability. If you say there are wheelchair ramps to the stage, and I get there and no such thing is in evidence? Then we have a problem. And when I bring the problem to the attention of the staff, I’m not making an unreasonable last-second demand. I’m just holding them to the promises they made.
So that’s my pledge. You can sign onto it yourself if you like, or make one of your own. But just as we’ve been pushing to get cons to deal with the harassment issue, we need to push on this one, too.
(1) I’ll note that I started drafting this post before Mary Robinette Kowal posted her own accessibility pledge; various personal issues (including, ironically, a month spent in a cast) derailed me from finishing it in a timely manner. I considered just signing her pledge and scrapping this post, but I decided I wanted to talk about this in more detail, so the post stands. But I’m well aware that I am not the first person on this particular bandwagon.
Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.