I spent most of last week up in Saratoga Springs, NY, for the 2015 World Fantasy Convention. As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, it was….interesting.
I was scheduled to be on two panels, one Friday and one Saturday, and one reading on Friday – my very first World Fantasy panels/reading. I rolled up to my 1 PM Friday panel on Epic Fantasy properly caffeinated and chatted briefly with various people as we waited for the doors to open. The doors opened, people poured out, I rolled in and headed towards the stage –
And felt my heart sink.
The panel had a stage for the panelists.
That stage did not have a ramp.
I use a wheelchair.
I had a brief discussion with an Ops person, who had not been advised that I use a wheelchair, and with Stephen Donaldson, the panel moderator. (Brief largely because the panel was already running a bit late.) Transferring and/or lifting me up to the stage seemed unsafe, so we agreed that I would stay on the ground level, beneath the rest of the panelists. A microphone was handed down to me.
Panelists Darrell Schweitzer, David Hartwell, Sarah Avery and Stephen Donaldson all did their best to accommodate me, and include me in the discussion, but I was uncomfortable.
I informed the Ops person that I also had a panel the following day, Saturday, and would need a ramp to the stage. I then cried, shot off a few irritated tweets on the subject, took some deep breaths, and thought about exploring the dealer's room for a bit before going to get ready for my reading, but then decided to go and make sure that someone else other than Program Ops was aware of the ramp situation, to make sure it got fixed, and rolled over to Registration. The woman there sent me back to Program Ops, where three people informed me that they would not be able to have a ramp for the stage on Saturday. I rolled back to Registration, but started crying again before I could get there. Fortunately, I ran into a friend who helped me get back to my room before I had a huge, public breakdown.
The next day, my fellow panelists Meg Turville-Heitz, Shauna Roberts, Kelly Robson, and Rosemary Smith all joined me on the floor beneath the stage.
I am grateful to all of my fellow panelists for doing what they could under the circumstances, but it would have been much easier for me if the stages had had ramps.
Other aspects of this year's World Fantasy were, if not exactly inaccessible, not exactly wheelchair friendly, either. For instance, the hotel lobby was on two levels. Access to hotel rooms was on the upper level; access to Registration, the hotel bar and restaurant was on the lower level. The two levels were connected by stairs, and a very much off to the side access ramp. I could manage the lower part of the access ramp without too many problems, but the upper part was pretty steep and difficult for me. The bathroom at the lower lobby level was technically "accessible" – my petite sized wheelchair could get in – but larger mobility scooters had problems. The bathroom just outside the dealers' room was not accessible, forcing users to either return through a hallway and two lobbies to the bathroom at the lower lobby level, or go through a hallway to the attached City Center – where the bathrooms were often locked up. The con suite was at the far end from all of this, down a very long, carpeted hallway not near elevators, as were the party suites. As a result, I visited each of those exactly once.
But what upset me more than those issues were the responses to my tweets, a good one third of which pretty much expressed, "Again?"
Because, unfortunately, this is not the first disability/accessibility problem I have had with conventions, or the first time a convention has failed to have a ramp that allows me to access the stage. At least in this case it wasn't a Disability in Science Fiction panel that, incredibly enough, lacked a ramp, but against that, in this case, the conrunners were aware I was coming, were aware that I use a wheelchair, had spoken to me prior to the convention and had assured me that the convention would be fully accessible, and put me on panels with stages but no ramp.
To address a few other issues that have been brought up to me:
1. As of this writing, I have not received an apology from World Fantasy, although I did receive some personal apologies (and a shot of whiskey) from con volunteers.
2. Lifting me up to the stage in my wheelchair or having me transfer from the wheelchair to climb a few steps is not a solution. It's unsafe.
3. My understanding is that adding a ramp to the stage would have cost World Fantasy $800. I understand that this is a significant amount of money, but I would also argue that this is the sort of cost that, like badges, ice cream socials, and the like, should be included in the convention's initial budget.
I have also been informed that part of the $800 cost was because this was a last minute request, suggesting that arranging for ramps is best done early on, if only for financial reasons.
4. Many convention rooms do not have space for a stage and a ramp leading up to the stage. Rooms of this size, however, generally don't need a stage. As someone who has been both a panelist and audience member in these smaller rooms, a table is fine.
5. Although I may have been the only wheelchair user on programming (I'm not entirely certain about that), I was not the only disabled member of the convention – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the guest of honor, uses crutches, for instance. I saw other members were using various assistive devices, including canes and mobility scooters. I saw only one other person in a manual wheelchair, and no one in a standard powerchair.
Having said that, World Fantasy does seem to have fewer wheelchair users than other events with similar sized groups held in wheelchair accessible/friendly venues.
6. Apart from that, convention attendees/panelists can find themselves in unexpected need of a wheelchair or other device (for instance, after a back injury or broken bone) and that it might be useful for convention staff to consider this while planning a convention.
7. As a result of all this, I spent yet another con mostly discussing disability issues, instead of books and movies. I don't like this.
8. I am, however, extremely grateful to the number of people at the convention who offered/gave emotional and physical support. This is too many to list, but again, thanks.
9. A few people have said that I handled the situation gracefully.
I only wish I could accept the compliment.
My apologies to everyone who witnessed my many less graceful moments.