Accessibility and Cons: If Comics Are For Everyone, Can Everybody Reach Them?

Geordi Laforge Funko, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Last time we talked, I discussed my own work as a comics creator and the ways in which I’ve worked to create my own disability representation in comics. This month, I want to delve into an issue that is broader in scope, but in many ways just as vital: accessibility at comic conventions.

It’s con season again, and with it comes a bag of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, I’m excited: I took a year off from attending cons, and it’s nice to be back in the swing of things. This is the first year I’m attending as acreator, not just a fan, and I’m looking forward to talking with people about my work. On the other hand, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of accessibility, particularly when I turn my eye towards networking and navigating a crowded show floor. Conventions are big, loud, crowded places, exhausting for able-bodied people and at times downright inaccessible for people with disabilities. Sometimes, even those cons with the best of intentions can be difficult to navigate. Most well-intended accessibility policies can be difficult to navigate.
Harper, Archie Comics

Back in November, there was a lot of great conversation happening on Twitter surrounding accessibility and cons, where people discussed their own experiences and provided suggestions for ways cons could do better. At the time, I mostly listened to discussions rather than contributing my own two cents, primarily because I was hesitant to gripe about my own experiences when the majority of conventions that I’d recently attended did have accessibility policies, and, despite the fact that the policy didn’t have a solution for my particular disability, I could have written to the showrunners prior to con weekend. Unlike in many cases of inaccessibility where panelists and fans were physically kept from being on the same level as their peers, I felt my experiences could be constituted as more of a minor inconvenience. I would need to arrive at panels at least an hour early in order to be seated close enough to hear, and during Q&A sessions where microphones were not used, I was shit out of luck.

Bigot Buster, Joe Chiappetta

Yet, I know in my heart that I shouldn’t be discounting even these experiences. The folks at New York Comic-Con and the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo have a pretty comprehensive accessibility policy and it’s quite easy to find on their website, and I was extremely impressed with the option of a Quiet Room at C2E2 this year for people with anxiety disorders. It was not something I remembered being offered at cons that I attended in 2014, and it’s reassuring to know that in some ways things are improving.

Moving away from this is, obviously, a good thing!
Moving away from this is, obviously, a good thing!

At the same time, ReedPop’s options for those of us who are hard-of-hearing, and who don’t know ASL, are fairly limited. They provide interpreters if you request it, which is really great and likely a lot more than some cons can provide. But because I don’t know ASL, this doesn’t do me much good. The accessibility policy is very clear that they cannot provide seating for panels, which I understand with conventions of these sizes, but I’d like to know if there’s some sort of middle ground that can be met upon for folks like me.  

What’s more, while many larger comic conventions have accessibility policies on their website, many smaller conventions—which in many ways are far more preferable to the chaotic hullaballoo that is NYCC—don’t have accessibility policies at all. Despite the fact that I enjoy myself far more at smaller conventions (and, as an aspiring comics professional, have far more opportunities to meet new people and exhibit my own work), I still have the same problems of accessibility, with the added complication of even fewer guidelines on who to talk to or what to expect. Of the small cons I’ve attended in recent years, Geek Girl Con had a small paragraph in their program directing you to contact a staff member (nothing on the website), and neither Small Press Expo nor MoCCAFest had anything on their websites that I could find.

…having an invisible disability adds an extra layer of complexity to the whole thing…

Again, in all of these instances, I could have contacted somebody. In the first few couple of years of my attending cons, I didn’t because it honestly wasn’t something that occurred to me. I’ve been conditioned for so long to make my own accommodations rather than asking for help that it’s still difficult to unlearn that instinct at times. In many cases, I just automatically assume accommodations aren’t an option, because other than my time at school, and at some jobs, accessibility and disability accommodations are never something that is brought up by an organization.

Echo in Daredevil, by David Mack for Marvel comics
Echo, a hearing-impaired character who appears in Marvel’s Daredevil

But once I realized that some cons did have accessibility policies and that, by law, all cons are required to have them in some form, I still hesitated. In some ways I’m still kicking myself for it, but in other ways, I’m trying to cut myself some slack. There is a reason I was afraid to contact con-runners—several reasons. I’m so used to having my hearing loss dismissed as “not that big of a deal;” as one example, I was recently told in a group setting that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t hear everything, because getting 100% of the conversation “wasn’t that important anyway.” I’ve had people ask why I can’t just wear hearing aids, which a) presumes that hearing aids solve the entire problem and b) is no one’s business but my own. In light of all this, it takes an energy reserve I sometimes just don’t have to go that extra mile to fight for accommodations. Additionally, having an invisible disability adds an extra layer of complexity to the whole thing–disclosing my hearing loss is still something that’s sometimes fraught and personal for me, and I’m still not 100% comfortable in saying to a perfect stranger “can you please speak up, I’m hard-of-hearing.” When it comes to a large space at a panel, or when I’m talking to someone in the middle of artists’ alley, that anxiety only gets amplified.

As a fan, all of this was one thing. As a comics creator, who needs to make use of cons to network with people, learn more about my craft, and exhibit the work I’ve done, it becomes something else entirely. This is not, of course, to say that my fan experiences or the experiences of fans are any less valid or important at cons, but for me personally, going the extra mile for accommodations became all the more important when it became about my burgeoning creative career. Many cons that previously didn’t have them are in the process of putting together accessibility policies, particularly in light of the Accessibility Pledge penned by Mary Robinnette Kowal, Lynne Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas at the end of last year. This progress is heartening, particularly when there are smaller conventions that already have extremely good policies in place.  I’m attending WisCon for the first time in a couple of months, and their accessibility policy has essentially everything I could ask for from a convention. Not only do they have designated spaces in the front of panel rooms for people who need to be close to hear or see, they have an entire section on how allies can help contribute to make the con as accessible as possible.

Every tip I’d wanted to include in this column is listed: keeping your lips visible for those who speechread, using a microphone if one is available (even if you have vocal training), describing any images/charts panelists might use for the benefit of blind or low vision members, etc. It’s a prime example of how even a small convention with a limited budget, and how accessibility isn’t just about those who are in charge of running the convention.

If everyone can attend conventions with a bit more mindfulness, then we can create fun, accessible spaces for everyone involved.