As a member of the Texas Creative Community, I get to meet and hear about a lot of awesome and inspiring projects and plans from a variety of creative folk, most of whom identify as geeks. I recently learned about the Starfish Comic and Gaming Expo, a con for special needs adults, from creative geek Walter Jimenez. I thought it was such a great idea that I immediately asked Walter for an interview.

First off, will you tell me about your own experience with the special needs community?

Four years ago, I started working for Focus on the Future in Lewisville, Texas. It is a post-secondary program for special needs adults [Focus on the Future specifically focuses on “students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities who are 18 to 21 years of age”] who are actively looking for work. We teach and refine job skills, work on independent living skills, communication skills, and how to get around within their own community. We are out there with everyone else. Our students compete against everyone else in the job market. The jobs that they receive are really earned and not given because they are special needs.
I immediately fell in love with the program and went after the special education certification to become a teacher. There is really no better feeling as a professional to see parents in tears when they drop their young adult off for their first day on the job. And I get to have that experience multiple times a year. The teaching team that has been assembled here has turned this program into one of the best special needs programs in the state. We get invited out across the state to lead panels to teach what we do. It has been a crazy four years.

So how did the Starfish Comic and Gaming Expo come out of this experience?

I enjoy going to conventions to visit friends and introduce my kids to new art. Every time I would mention it to my students, someone would ask me to pick an autograph for them or find them a picture of their favorite character. After speaking with parents, I realized that so many parents didn’t want to take their own young adults because there was a fear for safety, and they assumed that people would not accept them because of their disability. That is what gave me the idea for this mini-convention.
I have multiple goals for this convention. I want to create a simulated convention environment to show parents how safe and accepting a show can be. Once the students leave our program, it is the real world. If parents can see how conventions are safe places, then it can open the door to finding clubs to join and costumes to design. It has the potential of keeping the young adults from sitting in front of a television all day long and gives them something to direct their fandoms towards.
Trying to teach age-appropriateness to special needs students is something that is preached, but I do not believe it is truly understood. So many teachers not into geek culture believe teaching young adults to be age appropriate means to make them give up cartoons and other things of their childhood. I believe it to be something different. I want this convention experience to show students that it is completely ok to love cartoons as long as the enjoyment evolves. I do not believe it is appropriate for a 20-year-old to play with toys to act out their favorite episodes. However, I totally encourage students—especially those who cannot read or write—to use their toys to come up with original ideas. They love finding me in the mornings to tell me all about the fanfiction they created the night before. It is truly amazing to see the light in their eyes. This convention can take it even further. It can show these students that there are people out there just like them. It is about finding other Bronies for them to connect with and just new friends because they are special needs as well.
As for the convention itself, we have been very fortunate to have had people volunteer to give our idea a chance. Our special guest artist, Brenda Hickey, is flying in from Canada to spend the day with our students, and local businesses have donated the cost of her flight and hotel rooms. The local community has really shown us how much they support of program. A week ago we did not have any money outside what I was using to get things printed. And now, we have had $1,600 donated, with more trickling in daily. It’s a truly amazing experience.

Do you think the increased mainstreaming of geek culture has made something like this more possible?

Very much so. One of the most popular shows that our students enjoy is The Big Bang Theory. I have since started watching the show, and I realized that there is no way our students understand the show. But, they understand Sheldon Cooper. He acts like so many of our students. From what I have seen, the show has never come out and said that Sheldon has a specific disability. People acknowledge that he is different but accept him for who he is. And that is what our hope is for all of our students, to be acknowledged but still accepted. At least within the geek culture, I believe that society is completely ready to embrace the special needs community. And besides, I’d be willing to debate that there is not a more dedicated fan base than the special needs community.

​This is your first time planning a convention, right? What have you learned so far? Any tips for others interested in doing something similar?​

Yes, this is my first time ever trying something like this. From the local Dallas community, almost everyone that we have asked to be a part of the show has said yes. When I presented the idea, I had so many people tell me that they have have a family member with a disability. This community is one that has been ignored for a long time and people seem ready to help make a difference.
I have learned that it really just never hurts to ask. My team sat down and tried to think of which type of artist would appeal most to our students. In the end, we decided that a My Little Pony artist would get the most attention. Maybe it was perfect timing or maybe it was something else, but we were all very surprised when our first choice of artist, Brenda Hickey, expressed interest within a few hours of sending the email.
So, that’s the positive thing we’ve learned—be passionate about an idea and just ask. The only negative so far is realizing a nice idea doesn’t get you very far when trying to get through to a celebrity. At this point, we have not even been able to present an offer to anyone. The only advice people have given us is to try to get a hold of managers or booking agents. So far we have been told that they will not ever approach their clients with an offer unless we guarantee at least $4k to attend. So be prepared for rejection. But, at the same time, keep trying to reach out. We are still holding to make that right communication to get a celebrity to attend.

Interested in helping out with the Starfish Comic and Gaming Expo? Do you know anyone who might be interested in volunteering their time? You can contact Walter via the Starfish Comic and Gaming Expo Facebook page or tweet him @StarfishComiCon. To donate, click here, and please spread the word! It is crucial that the geek community be a welcoming community to individuals of all abilities and a safe space to share your love for all things geek.