By Sajida Ayyup
Remember “Pusheen” stickers on Facebook representing our favorite moods throughout the day? At New York Comic Con, Magic Wheelchair — a nonprofit that builds costumes for children who use wheelchairs — revealed its month-long creation for eight year-old New York City resident: a Pusheen costume with a motorized tail that swayed like a real one. This was the NYC team’s first attempt at animatronics and by the audience’s reaction, it’s safe to say the reveal was beyond successful. Remi was five when Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) took over his muscles and nervous system but his obsession with Power Rangers, ice hockey and of course, Pusheen remain untouched.
Pusheen wasn’t the only surprise at the “Cosplay and Disabilities: Incorporating Diversity and Accessibility into Costumes” panel on Saturday. Sebastian Acevedo, a 9 year-old from New Jersey, received a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed Magic Wheelchair and eventually met Tom Kenny, voice actor for SpongeBob himself. Acevedo has Emanuel syndrome, which prevents normal growth, but his increasing love for SpongeBob can only be witnessed in-person. While he was dressed up as the famed yellow sponge “who lives in a pineapple under the sea,” his mother cosplayed as his best friend, Patrick the starfish.
Joseph Munisteri, author of Butterflies in Space, spoke on Saturday’s panel about his experiences being a disability and mental health activist. One of the panel attendees addressed the fact that NYCC wasn’t up to the mark with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) tagging, which made getting into the con tougher than usual. Munisteri supported ReedPOP’s efforts in full swing and suggested giving feedback directly to the company.
“They do cons all over the world,” he said. “I can say from experience that not all conventions will use that feedback. And you know, change is constant. As they go, they learn.”
When Nancy Silberkleit, co-CEO of Archie Comics, introduced Riverdale to Scarlet Saltee in the books, she envisioned a world where conversation about autism and being mixed-race wouldn’t be a conversation at all.
“It’s a comfort zone, especially with cosplay,” she said. “People would come up to these kids saying ‘cool,’ not knowing that they’re in a wheelchair.” For her, the discussion showcased the real power of cosplay in many ways. “If I had known about this world, it would have done enormous help for me,” Silberkleit added. “I was left back because I couldn’t read, tell time, had to repeat first grade — today it’s seen as ‘everyone is wired differently’.”
Emily Acevedo, Sebastian’s mother, couldn’t hold her excitement when the SpongeBob cart was revealed at the panel. She’s been cosplaying since 1998 and was one of the first few volunteers at Dragon Con. But when it came to her son, she was afraid of attending something as huge as NYCC because of the crowd size and inquisitive eyes.
“It’s really hard for children like Sebastian to be included in cosplay,” Emily said. “When people will be looking at him with a smile on their face versus just looking at him, it’ll be a completely different interaction inside this community that we’ve never gotten to explore.” She thinks that the special needs community in cosplay and comics are underserved, and that NYCC needs to be more accessible in terms of expanding the fandom. “The bathroom will never be nice enough,” she added. “We need to completely change the idea of what is accessible by the perceptions of those who are able-bodied versus what is actually accessible by those who would utilize these facilities all the time.”
The people behind Magic Wheelchair are nothing short of superheroes themselves. Christopher Dimauro a.k.a. Widget helped built the Magic Wheelchairs for Remi and Sebastian along with his other teammates, all the while having full-time jobs. “I think it’s really important to have a good time, no matter who you are,” he said. “You never want to feel left out. You want to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
Silberkleit shared similar views to Dimauro about the world of comics providing a platform to express oneself. “It’s the comics world that has helped me speak up and encourage others to do the same,” she said. “This is just one part of society, and society is becoming louder.”