How Wondercon Failed Disabled Attendees
Comic conventions are an odd thing, either exciting hubs of creative minds or giant airplane carriers full of people trying to sell you stuff. Either way you feel, what cannot be argued is their existence. There are conventions almost every weekend of 2017, and on certain weekends, there are seven or eight at the same time. So, with something this popular and widespread, you’d assume that they would be desperate for all fans to come and spend their hard-earned money and precious time within their walls. Well, no. Conventions have a huge accessibility problem. I have never been to a truly accessible convention, although I have heard that Nine Worlds in the UK is the closest thing. Most conventions are wrought with bad planning, rushed decision making, and a distinct lack of care.
As an epileptic person and lifelong inclusion activist, I’m constantly looking at what cons can do better, and to be honest, it’s basically everything. Most cons are awful for disabled folk, but it is rare to find a con so inaccessible that it ruins your entire weekend. We’re pretty tough and used to being forgotten, but this week I panelled at the least accessible con I’ve ever attended. It was unironically called Wondercon.
I attended the show with my husband and wonderful friends Jazmine Joyner and Nestor Gomez who own the gorgeous Visionary Comics in Riverside, California. Jazmine is the first black disabled female comic shop owner in the U.S. and was excited to join me in my first Wondercon experience. Alas, it ended up being more of a disaster than letting a man at Marvel use Twitter. I asked Jaz–who has written a lot of great stuff on this topic–if she would do a day by day breakdown (we only made it through two days) of everything that made Wondercon a complete and utter ableist garbage fire, and boy, did she come through. So, without further ado, here is our con diary for Wondercon 2017.
Day One at Wondercon: March 31, 2017
Let’s talk about parking. That’s important, right? People drive a lot? Well, there was none at the Anaheim convention center due to construction. Fine, I can sympathize with that, but what I can’t understand is why Wondercon–or anyone–would choose to hold a convention at a convention center that is still under construction. Anyway, their great and unknowable decision-making led them to divert tens of thousands of people, miles away to park in the Honda Civic Center after which con-goers were to be shuttled to the convention in what were essentially minivans with Wonder Woman branding. Being disabled, this was in no way a viable alternative for myself. I use a walker, and the buses they chose to shuttle people were not disabled friendly. There were no lifts or extra storage for mobility aids, such as scooters, wheelchairs, walkers, etc.
We all decided (optimistically assumed) that Wondercon would have dedicated disabled parking on site to make the con more accessible. Well, we were wrong. After asking every police officer and volunteer on Katella Ave–who were diverting us without announcement to the Honda Centre– we were finally told that we too must park at the Honda center. There were tons of people walking from that direction, seeing this mass exodus only worried Rosie and I more because neither of us wanted to walk for miles in the sun. So Rosie, with her expert Twitter skills, discovered that not only were the shuttles ill-equipped to handle the amount of con-goers (there was a three hour wait to get a shuttle to the con), but they were, according to signage, charging $20 for parking on top of the already high price of the con.
Finally, we were dropped off in front of the Anaheim convention center, while our husbands looked for alternative parking. So far, Wondercon was not looking great. We were mad before we even got inside. When we finally walked up to the nearest check-point (we didn’t know we messed up and were about a mile away from the damn con entrance) and talked to the first volunteer that we found, we told her that we were disabled and asked if there was any designated parking for disabled people. The woman stated she had no idea about the parking issue (hard side-eye) and that she had no idea if there was any parking for disabled guests. Rosie and I pushed for more information and asked if there was a disability services, and she said yes and that we were to go to section D. So me and my walker wobbled down the pathway in the direction she pointed.
Now, this had me all the way fucked up. We were like half a mile from section D, Rosie was getting more and more visibly upset, and I’m just trying to make it to D. Fifteen minutes later, we get there, and the door is “guarded” (I use quotation marks because the two women were just chillin’ by the door chatting) by two women who we tell we need to see disability services and get our passes. They say we have to go to section E. Rosie and I look at each other, and at this point, I’m sweating and leaning hard on my walker. We just shake our heads and swear and keep walking. I just couldn’t fucking believe it.
So we get to Section E, and the woman points up this, I shit you not, to a staircase and says it’s right through that door. I look at the woman and ask if there’s a ramp. She says, “Yes! It’s right around the corner and leads you right inside!” I mumbled ‘kay thanks and scooted off. This damn ramp was all the way on the other side of the building! At this point, both Rosie and I are convinced this con doesn’t care about disabled people.
Finally, we made it to the conventions participant’s booth (Rosie was on a panel), get our passes, and ask if there’s a disability services or dedicated disabled parking. The volunteer simply says, “I don’t know you can go to the help desk.” She points to the atrocious line next to us filled with people who are in wheelchairs and scooters, canes and walkers, and with some able bodied people sprinkled in. We decide to not even attempt to join that line because Rosie’s panel was fast approaching. We walk off furious, and we then find ourselves in the exhibition hall. Suddenly, we realize we don’t know where the panel rooms are. No one gave us a brochure or a map or seemed to know where anything was.
So we started looking for someone to ask. But guess what? We didn’t find anyone on the entirety of the massive exhibition floor. We finally found our way to a door that led to the lobby and asked the security steward where the panel rooms were. He didn’t know. How? How does he not know? This would become a running theme for the con, that no one seemed to know anything, which is less their fault than a distinct lack of training or management. After a couple of minutes, someone told him that they were upstairs. That revelation then led to us asking if there was an elevator. Shock and horror, he didn’t know and waved in a general direction and told us to “try down there.” I started to chuckle under my breath, slowly losing hope in humanity. Luckily, we are hardy explorers and managed to find the elevators ourselves.
Now we were tired, angry, and our husbands had yet to find a parking spot that wasn’t miles away. Continuing our frustrating and already not fun adventure, we went to the second floor where we found the panel room. There I finally sat down to rest (on my own walker, because there was no seating in the hallways). Then our husbands returned. They were smiling and said they had an easy time navigating the con floor! Amazing how two abled-bodied men could get the answers they needed and get to us unscathed and unannoyed!
The rest of the day was a blur. Rosie’s panel went well, we explored the convention floor, and when it was time to leave shit got weird again. The exit we went through went to a loading area full of cranes, forklifts, and other machinery. This area screamed “You probably shouldn’t be back here!” But it went to a parking structure that belonged to the convention center. Rosie and I were intrigued. Everyone said there wasn’t any disabled parking available and that there was zero parking nearby. Why, when we walked by, were there several clearly marked disabled spaces?! Why weren’t we told about this when we asked everyone? It was cool, whatever, we said as we decided we would park there tomorrow.
Day Two at Wondercon: April 1, 2017
It’s federal law to have disabled parking available. It’s a simple thing to do, to make sure your event is accessible to everyone. So, tell me why, when we pulled up to the parking structure the next day, it was closed? Rosie, being the goddess she is, leaped out to talk to the parking attendant. She told him I had a disabled parking placard and that it was federal law to provide accessible parking, but he continued to tell us that the structure was completely full. There wasn’t one space available for us, not even a disabled spot. So again our husbands dropped us off and went on the hunt for parking.
Rosie and I did some research and found out that there WAS a disability service at section B. Yes, section B, not section D as we had been continuously told the day before. We made a b-line (pun fully intended) to that booth. Now I don’t like talking to people about things like this because I tend to pop off. Rosie told them everything we went through the day before and what we had just experienced with the attendant outside. They were shocked, and we learned that the parking was now (allegedly) free at the Honda center and that they were using hotel shuttles (which are accessible for mobility aid users) to help with the large number of guests. They gave us programs, stickers, and a disabled tag for our passes, which would help us for panel lines and signings. There were only three women running that booth, and they may as well have been invisible. The day before seemingly not one person knew that disability services existed, and if they did, they couldn’t tell us where they were located. We should never have had to do research to find them. It should have been common knowledge.
So, after talking to those lovely ladies, we felt a bit better. When our husbands joined us, we were told that while walking back they passed the parking structure. The attendant who was there–remember the guy who told us there was NO PARKING–was now ushering cars into the “full” parking structure. I was pissed. I wanted to cry and scream. There was no parking for disabled people, but everyone else could now easily get close and accessible parking. That’s some straight bullshit, and also, it’s illegal! We had to park four blocks away. Rosie and I had to wait to get picked up. But now seemingly anyone else who asks gets to park in the convention center. I was livid. At the end of the con, Rosie and I walked by the structure. They were still letting people in, and it was the same guy from that morning. Rosie went over to talk to confront him and ask him why he had lied to us and the guy gave her sarcastic apologies, condescended to her, and basically dismissed her. We sat nearby waiting for our car, fuming.
Wondercon is not only inaccessible, but their volunteers are undertrained and uncaring. The whole con was a complete disorganized mess. As a disabled person, I felt like Wondercon wasn’t for us. If Rosie (who has epilepsy) had had a fit on the convention floor, no one would be able to help her. There is no knowledge of a first aid station, and the convention floor was severely unstaffed. Wondercon doesn’t care that there was no accessible parking or the fact that if I didn’t have an able-bodied person there to help me I wouldn’t have been able to attend the con at all. I think about the people who showed up and realized they had no way to get into the Anaheim convention center. Without accessible parking or accessible shuttles, how were disabled people expected to get to Wondercon from the Honda center? Miles and miles away. This lack of foresight and thought is utterly heartbreaking. I’m sure after Friday a bunch of people had to go home because of the lack of accessibility. I saw guests on the actual con floor trying to find somewhere to charge their scooters and wheelchairs, because barely any of the outlets in the lobby worked.
This isn’t the first time I have written about the inaccessibility of conventions, but Wondercon is the first one where I truly felt unwelcome.