Comic Conventions are notorious for not being accessible to people with disabilities. Lack of interpreters at presentations and panels, inaccessible buildings, not enough seating around the convention for people to rest, are all problems that can prevent potential disabled convention goers from enjoying themselves. It sends the unintended message that, ’you are not welcome here’.
“It is isolating, and I spent most of my life not having a lot of access.” Said Kate Corbett Pollack, coordinator of Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University. “We wanted to start something here at Syracuse University, to provide not only disability access, but [have a convention] that has artwork and comics by disabled people.” Cripping the Con is changing what it means to be a disabled geek by creating a completely accessible comic convention. The name follows in the same vein of thought as the #CripTheVote campaign. It is meant to enabled people with disabilities to reclaim a word that has historically been a derogatory term for disabled individuals.
It is not an easy task to make an entire convention accessible to all attendees. On their website, the coordinating team describes all the ways they have made the events accessible. It includes ASL and CART (Communication Access in Real Time), access via an elevator, and the team has even promoted a scent free environment for those with scent allergies.
“There are a lot of ways of going above and beyond the ADA.” Pollack stated. Their staff includes electricians and an electrical engineer to help with making facilities even more accessible by adding state of the art doors that provide easier access than the traditional wheelchair button.
Need an accommodation not on the list? Like, say, a tactile ASL interpreter? There is a way to make accommodation requests in advance, “You can request any type of accommodations. We take it very seriously.” Attendees can even request specific meal options for the dinner component, for anyone who requires a special diet. Requests need to be made in advance, because setting up everything takes a great deal of coordination.
The convention is not meant to be only a place for entertaining accessible geek conversation, but is intended to also consist of academic discussion. Representation of people with disabilities in comic books, movies, manga, and other creative forms is overlooked or patronizing. It is also a topic that is not commonly discussed at more conventional cons.
Going into its fifth year, Cripping the Con is expanding beyond state, and even national borders. “I feel like we are reaching a more global audience.” Pollack explained, “This is the first time we have international musicians and artists coming in.” This year will also be the first year the convention will be live streaming some of the events, a feat that sounds easier than it is. To comply with their mission of being completely accessible, the video and sound quality needs to be near perfect. Additionally, they need to provide captioning and descriptions for all audio and images, “There a lot of things to get right with that.”
In the end, though, it is worth it. Cripping the Con is a truly unique event. As of right now, it is the only one of its kind that provides disabled geeks this level of inclusivity. It is also funded by the University, so it is free to attend. This is a crucial element of the design, since so many disabled people are unemployed, or under employed. Creating a con that is financially accessible further proves that people with disability belong in geek culture too.
Access is not limited to accommodations to the space. Staying involved with current events in geekdom is a massive challenge for people with disabilities, “One of the things I find frustrating, is I can’t go to the movie theatre. Those glasses they give you with the captions, I really need open captioning on the screen.” Not being able to attend movies as they are released can lead to not being able to keep up with current conversations and developments. For people who are deaf movies pose a problem, and for people who are blind or visually impaired, comics and other visual materials are simply not within reach. This can lead to a lag between current conversations, and an individual’s ability to participate in those discussions, “Pop-culture is a thread that runs through society, we are a media based society.” Limiting access prevents people from participating in that media.
Cripping the Con is changing the flow of information, so that more people can stay on-top of geek culture. It also is setting up a template that other convention organizers can follow to make their events more accessible, “I think it would be great if other conventions began to realize, ‘let’s make this more accessible’”. More than this, though, “It’s also the law.” Pollack emphasized, “They should be doing it anyways. Not everyone realizes that.”
It is also important that conventions begin to recognize the contributions of artistic talent within the disability community. Unfortunately, it is difficult to have guest presenters with disabilities if the convention is inaccessible, “We hope to provide information to people out there, answer how do we set this up, and people will look at our convention and maybe have a template for that.”
The convention takes place annually in the spring, usually in April. The date changes from year to year depending on religious holidays. Though the convention takes place on Saturday the 22nd this year, organizers try to be sensitive to the Jewish sabbath and choose different days. So, anyone who is an sabbath observant Jew and is also a disabled geek, will have the opportunity to attend the event in the future.
Creativity can only flourish when it is fostered. Hopefully other conventions will follow the lead of the Cripping the Con team. Opening doors and being more inclusive can only lead to more diverse stories being created. “When you have an inclusive experience, and you put your money where your mouth is, you will open up the world to possibilities.”
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