Going into San Diego Comic Con, I was filled with a mix of apprehension and dread. Last year’s con had been a nightmare in regards to accessibility. And this year, with the many tasks and more responsibilities I had coming into this con, I was sure the week would be a cluster fuck of epic proportions. Surprisingly, SDCC 2017 proved me wrong. Though in no way perfect, this year was a vast improvement on last year’s SDCC and this year’s WonderCon, which are both part of the same organization.
The first noticeable improvement was the staff. A make or break for accessibility at any convention is the knowledge of the staff members working the convention. One staff member knowing where the elevators are, for example, could make or break a disabled attendees experience and help save that vital energy for them to spend on going to a panel or just having extra time to peruse the small press area. Every member of staff I encountered was knowledgeable, helpful, and courteous. I was always directed to the nearest elevator, and all my questions were answered. Being that this year I attended the convention as a professional, the badge process was far less arduous than last year. But even with that change it still was a challenge.
The San Diego Convention Center has been the home of SDCC for 26 years, and it is clear that the convention itself has outgrown its home. The badge pick up was moved this year to the Sails Pavilion on the second floor of the convention center. As a wheelchair user, that means I would have to take the elevator to be able to access this space. Once again the staff was gracious enough to point me and my partner to the closest elevator where waiting were several people on motorized scooters, wheelchairs, and walkers. When the elevator opened it was easy to see that there was barely enough room for a small stroller let alone a couple of people with mobility aids. Throughout my four days at the convention the size of the elevators became a growing problem.
At one point I saw a woman on her motorized scooter get stuck in the elevator. Her scooter was wedged in in a way that made it impossible to move no matter how many fifteen-point turns she tried. Staff had to eventually help her out of her scooter and then pull the machine out with force. This becomes a problem when all badge pick up is on the second floor. On Friday the ADA line for disabled attendees to pick up their badges was crazy long. And with the tiny lifts, it would take hours to get all those attendees their badges. I talked to many other disabled attendees about their con experience, and I got mixed answers.
One older man thought the convention was accessible overall, but as an out of town guest he didn’t know he would need to reserve a scooter before hand so he could comfortably get around. He was offered a wheelchair, but because he had no one to push him, he decided to try the convention on foot. He said he had to take a lot of breaks and found it hard at times to find areas in which to do that. But next year he plans on trying to reserve a scooter earlier.
Another woman who came to our panel “Comics Are For Everyone…Aren’t They?”–a panel about accessibility and inclusiveness within comics and comic spaces–mentioned that she would love to bring her nephew to SDCC, but because of the conventions lack of safe spaces and sensory rooms, it would be hard for the young man who has autism. We talked about how the convention can provide a pro room for panelist, but not a space safe for attendees who have special needs and how easy it would be to just provide more areas around the center for disabled guests to be able to feel safer and included. Even our own panel struggled with accessibility, as I was stuck in the access lift for around twenty minutes waiting for staff to bring a key, although once they did I was able to get on stage and participate in the panel.
While I was making my way around the convention, I talked to many wheelchair and mobility aid users, and we mostly griped about the RFID scanners that you scan your badge at every door way. To hide the wiring of these scanners there is a large plastic speed bump that my partner would have to gather enough momentum to launch me over. Many people (with strollers and mobility aids) found these bumps to be cumbersome and difficult to maneuver around.
I honestly only had one heartbreaking inaccessible moment at SDCC this year. I was invited to do an amazing panel, but when I arrived there was no ramp to get on the stage. This had nothing to do with the amazing women who organized this panel, but the lack of communication San Diego Comic Con gives its panelist. We were not told that we would have to inform them if a ramp was needed when the panel was approved or that there couldn’t be a ramp placed at the last minute. So when I arrived, I was told there was no way for me to access the stage.
The staff in the room quickly called the man who was in charge of the room that the panel was held in. He arrived briskly, and, with an attitude, told me and my partner that there was nothing he could do this short notice. That a ramp couldn’t be placed, and I would have to figure it out myself. We went into the room to assess the situation with the guy in charge of ramps, and he suggested I just use the steps. Yes, I am a part-time wheelchair user, but because of my recent back surgery, I cannot walk very well at all. So I declined that option. The room was quickly filling with people, and he then decided that they all could lift me on stage.
Which was horrifying, to say the least, I didn’t want to put on a show and have onlookers watch as a bunch of people try to lift my chair and me onto the stage. After me stating this, the man offered to wheel me to the side of the stage in a corner and said I could participate there. Barely visible and off to the side. I declined this offer because not only would I feel shitty having to sit far off, but it would reflect badly on the organizers of that panel who did nothing wrong. I finally just left.
My experience at San Diego Comic Con was much different this year compared to last. There were plenty of improvements, the knowledgeable staff, and more accessible bathroom stalls. But with the small elevators, the lack of close disabled parking spots, and safe spaces for attendees, SDCC still needs work before it can be considered a truly accessible convention.