Nico Meyering is no stranger to the convention stage. A disability advocate, he’s presented at Awesome Con, Fan Expo Philadelphia, Anime NYC, the Great Philadelphia Comic-Con, and a host of others. He says that prior to COVID he didn’t notice much in the way of accessibility features at large conventions. He did, however, have a pivotal moment at New York Comic-Con in 2012.
“I had the profound experience of seeing Sir Terry Pratchett speak. And this was a point in his life where he was still travelling and speaking, but he was still very badly affected by the condition that ultimately did take his life. And even though there was someone to hold a microphone for him, like pretty much right up to his face, it was very difficult to hear him. That was my first experience into accessibility, or experience into getting con staff to help meet your access needs.”
More recently, conventions have come under fire in the disability community for not keeping their disabled attendees safe. Meyering says that at his most recent con, where he believes he contracted COVID, he was one of just a few attendees who were masked, a change from 2021 when he noticed cons were more strict with masking and other safety measures.
“It's difficult to maintain social distancing, it's difficult to take necessary steps to protect myself, when I'm the only masked person in the crowd, or I'm part of a masked minority in a crowd. Especially as you go to and from the vendor halls, those tend to be very high traffic areas… I will say that various con staff and con volunteers that I saw did do a good job of masking, but for whatever reason they didn't extend that same request to guests.”
The lack of safety procedures also leaves disabled creatives who would like to attend out in the cold in the first place. Pamela Uhrmann is a multi-disciplinary artist who says the lack of community care in these spaces leaves disabled creatives unable to make their mark. For her, that means limited opportunities to connect with other voice actors.
“There are many, many voiceover conventions happening and they used to all be virtual. But now [the message we’re getting is] ‘The pandemic’s over so it's really important that we all meet in person.’ And those options are gone now.”
Much like other offerings that have quickly reverted to being in-person only, the mental health of attendees has been cited by some in the event-hosting business as a reason to rush back. Just like the straw man argument that people who need to lipread are a perfect excuse to remove a mask permanently, Uhrmann says that any argument about mental health for attendees falls flat when you look through a disability lens.
“It's kind of beyond stressful at this point to try to sort of meet people where they're at when nobody else is really meeting us where we're at… [If] you understand how,for you, it's really important to be there in person for your mental health, how do you think the people with disabilities are feeling mentally right now?”
But what do these spaces gain when disabled people can safely attend? For Meyering, being a part of the disabled talent at a convention means understanding that these opportunities aren’t about scarcity, they’re about building community.
“I see now, especially at the last two Awesome Cons that I'm not the only disabled panellist speaking, there's other disability-centric programming, which is fantastic. I don't see those panellists as my competition or a threat. Whether one or either of us gets in, or ideally both of us get in, that's fantastic. Because ultimately, the result is pretty much the same: we're unveiling disabled perspectives to an audience that is usually majority non-disabled.”
He says that conventions need to sort out what accessibility can and should look like within their space and that it shouldn’t be a game of pass the buck as disabled attendees try to figure out who can run the lift to the stage for them or how they can navigate safely. Meanwhile, Uhrmann says that while conventions need to understand the complexities of access, that there isn’t just one version of accessibility, they also need to make way for disabled creativity.
“I feel like more respect and space could be given to people with disabilities for the creativity that we hold. We have to be creative in order to find ways to work around being accepted in society, in order to find ways to work and society, you know, just to survive in society.”
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