How to run an accessible con: some notes

Did you know that hotel carpet can be a pretty big burden on wheelchair users? That it can take up to three times as much energy to move your wheelchair over carpet than over a hard floor and therefore wheelchair users are tired more quickly than normal? When you think about it, it seems obvious, but the trick is to think about it when you’re not somebody with actual experience in riding a wheelchair around a con…

Just one of the things we learned in Vanessa May’s “how to run an accessible con” workshop/demo at Mancunicon. An one hour panel is of course nowhere near enough to begin to understand the subject, but it did provide a good overview of the mindset you have to have to be able to make a con accessible.

And the first question you have to ask as a con is how you define accessibility. Vanessa May urged people to take the broad view, to take into account both physical access needs (for wheelchair users, visually impaired, auditory impaired, etc) and psychological needs (quiet spaces for people with social anxieties to be able to decompress frex) as well as folding in things like religious or ethics based dietary choices under the access umbrella.

That was the theme that ran through most of her discussion about access needs. It’s relatively easy to get the 101 stuff right, to make sure that the hotel can be entered by wheelchair users, but harder to take the broader picture into context of what is really needed to make a hotel con accessible for them. Not just entrances, but baths, toilets, rooms, accessibility of hotel bar & restaurant, capability to get on the panel stage unaided, etc. There are a lot of things you can only discover with the aid of somebody with practical experience of being in a wheelchair trying the hotel out; the same goes for other kinds of access needs.

The other thing May stressed throughout the panel was to keep in mind the big picture. Access should be central to the con, but the ideal convention does not exist. Improving access has costs, both monetary and opportunity wise and they have to be balanced against the other needs of the con. One example being the carpet mentioned above: hard floors everywhere would be better for wheelchair users, but much harder on those walking. Some people argue that access needs should be the first to taken into consideration, but May is wary of that as it can be its own form of privilege. Related to that is the requirement to make the con’s accesibilty known early: what is and isn’t there so people can make decision to come or not before they waste money on memberships and hotel rooms.

Some of the points made by May as well as the audience when talking about concrete examples of deciding accesibility:

  • The venue is the highest priority as infrastructure limits what you can do
  • Assess hotels not just a year before, but also shortly before the con as things may have changed. See not just the rooms picked out by the hotel, but one or two more so you don’t just get the very best of the hotel.
  • Beds: height, type of mattress.
  • Toilets should be higher in accessible bathroom
  • Mobility – Looking for things like doors, level access, lifts (back of house/freight lifts) and CARPETS as riding carpets takes more energy than hard floors
  • Visual: look for things hard to notice (overhanging plants) patterns & colours
  • Echoing spaces for people with hearing issues, hearing loops, alarms that have alternate modes for visual and hearing impaired people
  • Function space: quiet rooms for people to chill out other than your hotel room
  • Does the hotel reset the function rooms each night, because then you have to set them for access again in the morning.
  • Escape seats at the back of the rooms for people with anxiety
  • Mobility spaces in the back or middle so people in wheelchairs/scooters don’t block people behind them
  • Reserved spot next to mobility space for partners.
  • Reserve 1 spot at the front for people with combined issues
  • Involve the concom early to make sure both they and everybody else know access is important.
  • Brief the gophers and note that many abled bodied people do not quite understand disabled needs
  • Listeners: need to be trained, known and trusted because it’s the ideal position for a predatory person to abuse.
  • Audience: Tech team is almost always in the front line because they’re in the room as reps of the con and get the issues first hand
  • Audience: The whole team has to think access.
  • Ribbons as visible clues, rather than as requirement to get help.
  • Social media needs to emphasise access
  • Website: alternative website with big print, screen reading, big easy buttons

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