How About That Accessibility, Huh?

Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) fandom is having a conversation about accessibility again. It could be great to have accessibility conversations right now — especially in this moment of a global pandemic that’s disabling so many people — if fandom weren’t currently stuck in echoes from a decade ago. We’re having 2013-level conversations again. Probably earlier, too, but I say 2013 because I checked my old archives. Yay? A bit of good news is, I saved some of the notes. We don’t have to do this again, fandom.

If you aren’t aware, the World Science Fiction Convention (“Worldcon”) was a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C.

Mari Ness, a longstanding professional in the field and someone I personally think is great, had a truly shit time with this con. Please read Mari’s tweets about the con, and her extensive assessment in a blog post here and then additional tweets about lack of access in fandom and pro spaces. Because this inaccessibility keeps happening, regularly.

Something Mari mentioned in passing on her blog is that her access challenges in Helsinki at Worldcon 75 (in 2017) were minor. Now THAT is something I know a little bit about, and so I thought I’d put it here in hopes it will help in the future. This was originally a comment to Mari’s post that got way too long — please read her post and threads first and then come back here to read further.

If people want to know why we had some better accessibility at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki (not perfect, maybe not even great, but some better accessibility in 2017), I can speak to some of that. I was the point person for the bid in the US for a few years, on the board, and co-chair of the con for over a year before political shenanigans forced my resignation. If I had it to do again now, I’d do some things differently, but I at least have a partial record of what we did with regard to access.

We had several volunteers with a few different disabilities working on the bid for the con. I worry that even referencing what access needs staffers had risks tokenizing them, here, and I worry that they may have felt tokenized at the time and/or feel tokenized now. To be clear, though, most of the folks with disabilities were recruited to help in non-access-department areas where they had expertise. (I can’t say all because one person with a disability was hired to co-head the access area for the bid, based on their expertise and interest in the job.) Each volunteer gave crucial input in trying to create a more inclusive Worldcon from the beginning, however, and I do think it was important that folks with disabilities were visible and valued at several levels of staff.

I really appreciate the hard work of everyone involved. When we said that we wanted to see “the WORLD in Worldcon,” that included members with disabilities as well as attendees from as many places around the world as possible.

At any rate, the bid team was talking actively about accessibility and what public transit and tourist attractions were better or worse for wheelchairs and scooters/mobies back in July of 2013 (aka, four years prior to our convention in Helsinki). We appointed a two-person team to head up accessibility for the bid sometime around then, and began a rundown of what the site’s access pros and cons were, including a floor-level (no ramp needed) Hugo Ceremony venue with an amphitheater and induction loops throughout the venue for those hard of hearing. The website for the bid was assessed for visual accessibility on screen readers at around this time. I believe the co-heads of accessibility for the bid also did an initial in-person site visit in the summer or fall of 2013.

Sometime around two years pre-con (2015), I and a couple of others went on an access-focused walk-through of the Messukeskus facility. We had another facility walk-through in November of 2016 (about nine months prior to the con), this time with two senior staffers who were a wheelchair user and a mobie user. We timed how long it took to go to some areas using assistive devices.

Mari’s experience at the World Fantasy Con in Saratoga in 2015 was very much on my mind during this time — I had attended that con, and it had been a debacle for access, despite them having a guest of honor who used crutches to get around that weekend. I pled with the WFC staff to get a ramp for Mari to be able to be on the platform with her co-panelists for the second day of con, and I offered to pay for the ramp personally when the con balked at potential cost. I thought it was a small price to pay if it meant fixing such a big problem, and I had a tech startup salary at the time, so I could afford it. WFC staff refused my offer and did not pay for the ramp themselves. I’m sure some of the folks I argued with at the time still dislike me for the outrage I expressed at the time.

There’s something I cringe a bit about now, but I also think drove home my point at the time. I remember saying to a facilities staffer at Messukeskus that I was very invested in accessibility, in part, because you can’t predict when someone might develop a temporary or permanent disability. They did not want to have to fix things at the last minute if they were faced with the shame of being inaccessible to a guest of honor, I argued, and I didn’t want that to happen to any of us.

Messukeskus addressed some of our access concerns and questions in the years leading up to the con, at least in terms of accessible bathroom issues and a few other notes, but I don’t think they did anything about the potential single point of failure of the lift over stairs in what I think was the second floor back hallway. If I’m misremembering, I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments.

We still definitely had accessibility challenges at Worldcon 75 in 2017. I have my own complaints of how Worldcon 75 went, personally, which I won’t get into here. However, if someone is thinking, “ah, I wonder how much effort it takes to kick the tires and avoid the worst accessibility issues,” this is the part of the work that I remember and can find traces of. In the end, it was about long-term planning and inclusion.

Please, do better, fandom. Please.

Drawing of a diverse range of people in Wonder Woman costumes, including a person in a wheelchair at the far right of the image.
“We Are All Wonderwomen!” art poster by the Satrun Twins. Prints available on their Etsy page. Image used and linked with permission.

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