As you may have heard a very unfortunate incident happened at BookCon that I was involved with. At a panel on Diversity in Graphic Novels organized by Diamond Comics, which I was moderating, creator Tee Franklin arrived and found that there was no ramp for her to get to the speaker’s stage. She was understandably upset over this incredibly avoidable situation – but even more so because the exact same thing had happened the day before at a panel at Book Expo, also organized by Diamond Comics.
Although I attempted to compromise by having the rest of the panelists sit in front of the stage – as had been done the day before – and all the other panelists quickly moved down, the evident neglect of having the same thing happen twice (and apparently at other cons) was too much for Franklin, and she made a heartfelt speech and quit the panel, leaving the room to applause.
I’ve privately apologized to Tee, but will do so here as well: I am profoundly sorry that she had to undergo this, and I apologize unreservedly for my part in the debacle. It was not my responsibility to make prior arrangements for the panel, but I take full responsibility for what happened in the panel room.
Accessibility issues are always a hot topic at conventions, and BookCon was no exception. They have a page for fans with special needs which includes medical stickers for fans who need access to areas for disabled attendees or additional help.
None of that pertains to panels however.
Just to be clear, I did not organize the “Diversity in Graphic Novels” panel. I am asked to moderate many panels that I do not organize, and as a moderator only I may not have contact with the panelists. That’s what happened in this case: Diamond reached out to the panelists and organized it with the event and the publishers whose creators were attending.
In the past I have organized panels with panelists with disabilities, and in each case I reached out to the venue ahead of time to make sure the stage would be accessible and in each case things went smoothly. I have no idea why at BEA/BookCon it was not communicated by the panel organizers at any time that the stages for both panels needed to be accessible to a mobility vehicle. Obviously there was a breakdown in communication.
All that said, it’s really mind boggling that after this happened the first time no one thought to check on the room for Franklin’s other panel, whether it was someone from ReedPOP, BookCon, Image (Franklin’s publisher) or Diamond. It was a systemic breakdown.
I was aware that in the first panel the panelists had sat in front of the stage, but this was mentioned to me in casual conversation and the assumption was that it was a satisfactory solution.
Obviously, that assumption was incorrect.
I know some people are going to see the above as me deflecting. Although it was not my job to make prior arrangements for the panel, I should have put two and two together when I heard about what happened on Friday.
And that’s really the bottom line here. We all failed Tee Franklin and we have failed many other disabled con goers and guests. We need to have accessibility for all creators and fans, and we need to be aware of their needs and not just think its someone else’s job. It’s the symptom of privilege to fail to make room for all voices, and that’s what happened here.
In the future, even if I am just the moderator, I’ll make certain to reach out to all panelists ahead of time to find out if there are accessibility issues and alert the proper authorities to make sure that the proper steps are taken. I assumed that all the necessary steps had been taken for the panel at BookCon, but once again, assumptions can and often are wrong. Before all of this happened, I went to the panel for RUN, the sequel to MARCH by Rep. John Lewis and he spoke about how you have to just do the right thing. Assuming that all panelists are able-bodied and have equal access is NOT the right thing.
I need to do better. The industry and the community need to do better.
There are not a lot of resources on this topic, a sign of how much work needs to be done, but some links:
Convergence Con’s accessibility page, with many guidelines other cons can learn from
Fans for Accessible Conventions, a Facebook page on the topic
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.