Mari Ness (mariness) wrote,
Mari Ness

Readercon, final post: disability

The short version: Readercon made me feel like a freak. And not in a good way.


Told directly to me:

1. About a nearby grocery store. "You can walk there."

Me: No, I can't.

Congoer: "Of course you can."

Me: (holding table instead of cane, lifting cane) No, really, I can't.

Congoer: "Well, if you insist on just spending more money at the hotel restaurant –"

2. (multiple times) "What did you do to yourself?"

Note the phrasing: what did you do – not "can I ask what's wrong/what happened?" but the phrasing that assumes that I must have done something to be like this, that my illness is my fault. By Saturday I was launching into an explanation to people that weren't asking, as a defense mechanism. Even post the explanation, some people asked, "So what did you do to get this?" By Sunday I was tempted to explain that I'd deliberately asked fate for a rare neurological disorder so that I could become the disability poster child for speculative fiction.

3. (a few times) "You're too thin/too fat to have these problems."

(I think this says more about our culture's obsession with weight than anything.)

4. "Have you tried eating better?"

5. "Why are you dumping salt on your food?" (Ironically, I actually don't do enough of this – I'm supposed to add salt to each meal, but I'm not a salt person, so I forget.) Explanation. "Well, if you really have blood pressure issues you shouldn't be having salt. I'd talk to your doctor."

6. "So, I'm guessing you write about handicapped people, right?"

7. "Disabled protagonists are a really big thing right now. You could make a lot of money."

8. "Hey, let's walk to the mall."

9. "Hey, we're going to walk to…."

10. [After explaining that I felt stalled on my novels] "Have you tried taking a long walk?"

11. I explained to a well meaning person that I needed to sit in the back for the Bad Prose Competition in case I had palpitations and/or dizziness. "Oh, if that happens, we can help you out." I explained that if I had palpitations, I needed to walk as little as possible – thus, I needed to stay near the door. Plus, I did not want to disturb others if I had to leave.

"I don't buy it."

The argument continued until I added that I did not want to fall down in front of potential editors and readers. One of many examples of kindly, well intentioned fail.

12. The words lame, crippled, used to mean "stupid". I actually need to give people a pass here since I'm still learning to avoid using these words in that context myself, but it was still startling to hear two separate people in a panel called "Coping With Diversity" use the words.

13. I'm not my disability. I'm me.

14. I came to Readercon to talk about books. I spent about a third of my time talking about illness and disability.



If I hid my cane beneath or behind a chair, people would meet my eyes, nod, and sometimes initiate a conversation.

If I had my cane out, I almost always had to be the one to initiate the conversation – although once people knew me, they would wave or nod in my direction or chat. Also, the reactions varied depending upon whether I was walking normally or badly (I do both). This may not have been entirely because of the cane: I met two other people on Friday night who noted that they, too, were struggling to meet people; the guy noted that this was the unfriendliest con he'd ever been to.

But sometimes, I thought I saw people look at the cane, and hurriedly avert their eyes, and then look away. Friday I told myself I was just imagining things because I was feeling like crap.

(Note: when I'm sitting, or when I'm walking normally, I look normal, transforming me into one of those people with invisible disabilities - up until the point where I start having problems walking, or I get very dizzy. And the attitude from some others seemed to change from periods when I looked normal, versus when I was having walking problems.)


Readercon reminded me that I'm not a naturally gregarious person. Years of working in marketing taught me to act gregarious with strangers, but that's a very different thing, and takes effort. Generally I don't mind this – it's how I get to meet people and make friends. But it's difficult when you start walking towards someone who looks at your cane and turns away.



Unlike other con hotels, the rooms at Readercon are not located directly above the convention area. This forces people to walk down a hallway and back from their hotel rooms to the con area. On Friday (and I realize this was the hotel overbooking) some events were up in hotel rooms, some events on the convention floor, increasing the need to walk. Chairs were placed in rows too narrow for wheelchairs to navigate; panelists sat on wheelchair inaccessible platforms. The Meet the Prose party required non con panelists (and to be fair, some con panelists) to walk around to meet people in a large, poorly lit room. That event, not incidentally, was the lowest moment of the con for me.

On the other hand, not having to navigate through huge crowds was a decided plus.


Overheard, Friday night when I was having problems walking:

"I wouldn't even bother to come to a con if I walked like that."

"You'd think she'd get a wheelchair."

"I guess we're letting the freaks and crips in."

"Higher level of freaks this year."

Overheard, Friday, when I was bringing water to a woman in the bathroom:

"God, why can't people be sick in their rooms?"

(I expect the overheard comments were just a couple of jerks, and I would have brushed them off entirely if not for other issues.)


One of the reasons the Saturday singing was so marvelous was that no one there wanted me to do anything else but sing. It was great.

But aside from the singing, I did not feel welcome at/part of the con until I established my semi-pro credentials. As I've suggested, some of this might just have been the naturally cliquish nature of this con where so many of the professionals, semi-pros and longstanding con attendees already know each other. At Mega-Con, in contrast (where I had health issues, but always felt welcome and part of the con) nobody can know everybody or even one-tenth of everybody. Readercon definitely has a more insular feel.

And some of this might stem from my own expectations. I was an unpopular kid in school, and books were my escape. As an adult, books, gaming and cons have continued to be my safety net. I love cons because they are full of people like me. And although I'd gotten dizzy at both SuperCon last year and MegaCon this year – I'd still had fun. I'd still been part of the con.

And, I have to be honest here: part of the problem was knowing that some of these comments, and certainly the lame/crippled language, were the exact sorts of comments I might have said or thought once. Facing my own failures is kinda painful.


Obligatory disclaimers:

1. This by NO MEANS describes everyone at Readercon. The majority of people I spoke to were awesome.

2. I freely admit that many of my reactions might have come from just feeling like crap all day Friday; as I earlier mentioned, it's rough to watch other people having fun when you're feeling awful. And let's face it: you're going to run into jerks everywhere. Also, I may well be a bit spoiled, since I live in a neighborhood where disabled people are commonplace and not worthy of a second glance.

3. So yes, I'd not only recommend Readercon; time and finances permitting, I'd like to go back, although if, as I fear, finances allow only one con next year, it will probably be World Fantasy Con.

After all, I got to talk to Samuel Delany and Gene Wolfe and Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman and a host of other marvelous and brilliant people, and got to put faces to editors and chat with editors and get to hear the other side of the submission process and chat with several other hopeful writers about the submission process (which made me feel much better) and writing flash fiction and various ideas for integrating the internet and html coding into fiction (I'm still thinking about this one) and exploring more ideas for print and so on. The con was full of Good Things, and I loved the quieter, laid back atmosphere, and the chance to talk quietly with writers. One of the many reasons why this post was painful to write; I do not like the Good Things tainted by the actions of a few.

(Also, I kept trying to look for jokes, and couldn't. But humor shall be returning to this blog soon! I decree it!)
Tags: disability, readercon

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