by Bruce Lidl
Anyone who has been to the San Diego Comic Con can tell you that a large number of the attendees require a little extra help moving around, as there is a small but significant portion of disabled con-goers. And as demonstrated by the recent Comic Con Talk-Back panel, working to ensure that disabled patrons can enjoy their Con experience as the able-bodied can be a big challenge for organizers, even with the best intentions.
I, unfortunately, had to experience the Con this year from a disabled perspective, as I broke my ankle a little over a week before Preview Night. After having been to the Con for many, many years, in every capacity from exhibitor to press to panelist, this was clearly going to be a very different version of the Con experience, less concerned with doing everything possible, from the coolest parties to the most awesomely obscure fan gatherings, and far more focused on just the most basics. Could I even do the Con from a wheelchair? Would I be able to attend popular panels if I could not lineup for hours beforehand? Navigate the show floor? Find an appropriate restroom? All questions I never really had to consider previously.
In general, and I can only speak for my own experience, attending the Con while not fully mobile is frustrating logistically, but also pretty amazing from the sheer willingness of organizers, exhibitors, volunteers and regular attendees to help out. That’s not to say everything and everybody went as planned, but the vast, overwhelming response from the people I encountered from a wheelchair was positive and helpful.
The Con’s Disabled Services people I dealt with were perfectly fine, did not question my credentials other than to look over my massive cast and wheelchair and gave me a handicapped sticker for my badge, and a disabled attendant card for whomever I brought to help me out. Prior to the Con my friends and colleagues had tried to cheer me up by telling me that I would be able to get into the most popular panels easily with a handicapped sticker, and while I had no intention of “profiting” from my misfortune, I was curious to see what kind of access I could get.
My attendant and I swung by Ballroom 20 about an hour prior to the Firefly/Serenity reunion panel on Friday, assuming it would be one of, if not the most, heavily desired event of the Con. It turned out that there were at least a hundred people in the separate handicapped line, and it looked very unlikely that all of them were going to get in.
We moved on to other activities, which was likely the right call, considering what some others have reported, but we did return to Ballroom 20 a few hours later, to see if conditions had changed, and indeed they had. There were only a couple of dozen, at most, waiting in the handicapped line at that point, prior to the Women Kicking Ass panel. We got in line and then almost immediately a Con staffer came up to us and offered to bring us in. She did not explain why she had us jump the handicapped line, the only thing I can assume is that we were the only people at that point, in that line, in a wheelchair. She took us to a place in the room that had an empty space for a wheelchair, and a red labeled attendee seat next door. It was not in the front row or anything like that, it was pretty far back, behind the big screens, but it was in the room, and we got to experience eventually Joss Whedon’s hilarious panel appearance. But it is very clear that a handicapped sticker does not provide some sort of magical access to everything cool at the Con.
That was basically the only panel we tried to attend, the rest of our time that day (and for a few hours on Sunday) were spent cruising the show floor. For the most part that was fine, it just took some creative steering from my helpers to avoid getting caught in the massive streams going down the four main North-South alleyways. There were some positive effects as well, primarily in that in a sitting position, I would invariably end up with direct eye contact with the exhibitors that were sitting down themselves. It sometimes allowed for a quicker, more direct exchange with them, I believe. Also, every exhibitor I engaged with was very solicitous to help me out, although I really did not attempt anything too ambitious in the sense of getting celebrity autographs or scoring Con exclusive merchandise.
Again, I would stress that this is merely one person’s experience, and I was very lucky to have generous friends and family willing to help out. But aside from dealing with the same huge throngs that everyone there has to cope with, I do not have much in the way of complaints. I definitely look forward to my next convention and being equipped with a working right ankle!
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.