Tuesday 12 August 2014

Nine Worlds 2014 - How to do accessibility

Hello world.

I'm not going to do a linear review. My brain doesn't work in linear ways. If you want more context for the way my mind does work. reading this might help. Otherwise, the long and short of it is I have Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers), depression, anxiety and a right leg which likes to go numb combined with two bulging spine disks and a hyperextending spine, I suspect among many things.

So why did I think going to a con for 4 days was a good idea? Because I contributed to the kickstarter and attended last year, of course. The addition this year of an access co-ordinator who very obviously had more than half a clue also might have helped persuade me. So I think we'll start there.

How to do accessibility without 'doing accessibility'

 An accessibility policy with added co-ordinator is of course a good place to start. Obvious even. Until you realise I can't go to San Diego Comic Con and will never be going to SDCC as long as their accessibility 'section' reads 'come and speak to your desk we'll see if we can help you'. Sorry SDCC, not good enough. People are flying thousands of miles to come attend your event - we might be able to help you, but we might not isn't good enough.

Yep, the biggest con in the world has a lot to learn from the most inclusive con in the world. Ah, you say, but that's a bold statement.

So here's the thing. Normal accessibility is about wheelchairs. And it feels a little bit like that's where it ends for most people when thinking about how accessible their event is. Now wheelchair accessibility is important, and I need to write a post about the utter despair of bad design that some wheelchairs are, but they're the beginning. When it comes to a big event in a big hotel with events, panels and talks in something like 30+ spaces, there's a lot of people who unless their accessibility needs are met, can't come.

Nine Worlds know this. Their initial manifesto hinged quite strongly around a product which was accessible to all, and was a safe space. It's why I bought tickets for something I'd never heard of, with no idea of who would be attending. So how are they doing?

From my perspective, fantastically well. I arrived at the desk and tickets were found and sorted lighting fast. Everything was clearly labelled around the venue so finding everything was easy. Some sessions ran out of chairs (and we'll come to that in a bit) but I only needed to take advantage of the 'priority seating' once. Most sessions were in exactly the right sized room for the amount of people who wanted to attend leading to few needing to sit on the floor and potentially block exit routes for wobbly/wheeled people.

Sessions in the programme were mostly marked and described well, meaning I didn't spend energy leaving sessions midway through bored to tears. I never felt claustrophobic in any of the spaces except in the winding corridors on the fourth floor. Not the organisers fault. The map was clear and easy to read (for me) so I didn't worry about occasionally splitting up from my partner and then finding him again. I never used the quiet rooms because I simply sat outside when I was too tired to do sessions and chatted in small groups. I never used my communications clip though I had a red one in my handbag all weekend. I never felt like I was holding people up being slow climbing down stairs, no one tutted, muttered or certainly audibly expressed frustration.

I didn't really interact with the staff except one bar person who was lovely and didn't seem phased by me at all. The atrium was painful and echoey a lot of the time so I didn't spend any time there during the sessions crossing over and made sure I did use it when it was quieter as it was a beautiful light space. There were hidden pockets and chairs and sofas scattered helpfully through the hotel for those 'I've completely run out of steam' moments. Food and drink were expensive but they quality of both meant I resented neither. Water was available widely and freely. Sudden noises, or changes were minimal, raucousness something I only came across once, and only once did I need to leave a session because I just simply couldn't cope with being there any longer.

This was the first con I spoke to someone I didn't arrive knowing who wasn't 'staff'. For me that's a massive massive thing. I also asked a few questions of panelists and though meeting with mixed responses, I was never made to feel stupid, only that I could have phrased something more carefully and it would have helped had I been less nervous of actually asking the question.

These two things are huge for me. My partner of 10 years commented on both, because we both know they're not things I'd ever do if I didn't feel massively comfortable. For me, this is proof that Nine Worlds have created something magical, rare and worth fighting for and protecting. I found my voice again after losing it for a year, found a little independence, a little bravery, and a lot of strength. I can't thank the team of volunteers enough for what this weekend has given me in terms of affirmation, empowerment, warmth, kindness and patience. I suspect you only see the problems during the weekend. It feels so important to me to explain clearly what you're hard work resulted in for others.

There were some small problems however.

People don't like it when they're made to feel stupid

I knew Just a moment would be very busy. It's always very busy. It's become a con staple when Paul Cornell is present because Paul Cornell is frankly excellent at this - dry, sarky and enormously intelligent. We arrived a little later than planned to a room we had not been in before, therefore we had no idea of its size. It didn't look like too many people in front of us so I assumed seating wouldn't be an issue. Wrong.

A kind lady saw me looking hesitantly at the floor and offered me my seat. I couldn't accept because it would have been wrong to. She'd arrived in good time, and queued for it. I hadn't, mostly because I was exhausted and struggling a lot, but that wasn't her problem. I saw carefully on the floor with my back against a pillar and explained that at the end they might need to step over me because I wouldn't be able to feel my leg for a bit. This was the point where I realised I was a fire hazard.

Paul Cornell spotted there was a very full room and pointed out that the front row was for 'priority seating' which is how it is referenced both in the Nine Worlds programme given out to everyone, on the website and on tube trains and buses as well. One lady as she passed me standing up said 'apparently it's for special people'. I replied 'no it's for broken people' and she replied with something else equally unpleasant but I didn't catch and my partner can't remember. 

4 chairs were free at the front. I sat in one at the end, my partner sat to the side of my on the floor. I shook for 30 minutes and tried tapping rather than rocking which was what I really wanted to do but didn't feel I could do because I didn't want people staring at me any more, frankly. The 3 chairs to my right stayed free until one at a time, two more people entered the room, asked if they were free, I explained they were for broken people should they need them and the sat in them.

The chairs didn't have labels on. These people had missed Paul Cornell's explanation. I ended up gatekeeping and being forced to interact while in a state where I'd really rather have been in a quiet corner rocking to myself. 

The panel was awesome. My right leg lost all sensation during it despite lots of shifting around. I managed to exit the room before it collapsed completely and I had to stand for 5 minutes holding onto a wall to stop me falling over. 

To summarise, and as I fed back to the lovely Access co-ordinator when I'd finally stopped hurting about it all so much was, people don't like it when they're made to feel stupid. That woman said what she did because she felt like she'd done something stupid. She hadn't. There should have been labels on the chair, stuck to the chair so they couldn't be removed or lost. They weren't. After explaining this to the Access co-ordinator all front row seats had priority seating labels on them after this point. 

When is a lift not a lift?

When you need a key card to operate it and  you're not staying in the hotel because you can't afford £150 plus a night. It got sorted, at some point. But I didn't know what that point was. 

I can't role play

I signed up for the Sherlock scavenger hunt because I am a complete Sherlock fangirl. I thought it would be a scavenger hunt, it said it would be in the programme. It also said it was a rerun of a game at a picnic but having not attended the picnic I didn't know what that meant. So I assumed it was a thing where you went around on your own or maybe in pairs looking for clues and solving riddles.

It actually involved teams of 5-9, each of whom picked a card and the card would tell you whether you were a detective or a mole, there being one mole per team. Guess who was the mole? Me. Now there's been much discussion of whether autistic people can lie or not. I can but I feel massively uncomfortable doing it, it consumes massive amounts of processing power and I associate it with some very bad situations I've been in recently. Deception, which is what this actually was, consciously deceiving people, is something I don't like doing. I didn't want to do it. So I swapped cards with my partner. Thus ruining the dynamics completely of the game.

This led to horrid. The rest of the team I think picked up that there was something odd going on and didn't include us really in the clue solving bit - we went looking for clues and I found none because I of course avoided all the places where people and busy and noise were and looked in the quiet spaces. But of course that's not where the clues were hidden. So I assume the rest of the team also assumed we weren't trying or contributing.

It was a mess. The kind of mess I don't have the social skills or social understanding to deal with so I just withdrew. It was the longest 2 and 1/4 hours of the entire weekend and I have never been so glad for something to be over. I got in a proper muddle about how I felt and the emotions it was making me feel, being spectacularly bad at identifying anything more complex than happy or sad and yeah.

Ultimately I felt like my monkey had ruined other peoples fun. 

However, even in this there is such good. I asked Nine Worlds Access and another chap at the con who was feeding back on autism related stuff if I was being crap. Both were kind and lovely and then someone who had helped adapt the game for the con joined the conversation on Twitter and was lovely about it too and something which had felt tight and coiled and furled unravelled. I have absolutely no doubt that next year there will be things on the programme warning of social, teamwork or role playing being required. And you know, if I'd not felt comfortable raising it, I wouldn't and in the past I haven't bothered to say anything when in these situations. Again it speaks volumes about the inclusive nature of this event that I do feel comfortable writing this, explaining this.


Nine Worlds are venturing into an area of accessibility others mainstream cons don't reach. They were conducting themselves with transparency, patience and kindness. Some things went wrong. Every time I've raised those things I've been met with 'can we fix this, how do we fix this, we can fix this'. I believe that these things will be fixed if possible and reasonable, and wont be if they are not. I love Nine Worlds very very very much and we have bought tickets for next year already. People on my Twitter stream have said they will come to, based on the positive tweets I have sent and I have no fear at all that they will regret it. Many many larger cons could learn from the bubbling laughing enthusiastic joy Nine Worlds creates. I hope that somewhere, somehow, I contributed to that in opening up, being brave, talking in the clear and always suggesting fixes where I could think of them. It would make me very sad to think that I'd not tried in the right way or hard enough.

Thank you Nine Worlds. For 4 days I did not feel like a freakgirl. xxx

1 comment:

  1. totally agree with all of the above, everyone did a fab job and it was a very safe space, thank you so much for that, organisers and volunteers.
    some improvements for next year, from my perspective as someone with visual impairment and fatigue/pain issues. Something happened and the large print programmes got lost. I know they were planned, but this was a little tricky.
    priority seating labels, once they appeared, were moveable, and move they did. At one point there were three labelled seats in a room that i'm sure earlier had eight. This resulted in sitting on the floor and pain. Can labels be fixed next time please?
    can I suggest that another term, rather than "priority seating" is used? maybe access seating? maybe it could say in a section of the programme other than the access system (as I suspect only those with access needs read that bit) what they are for and something along the lines of "the front row of seats in each room are access seats. Please don't sit in one of these unless you need it. If these seats are still empty once a session has started, you can sit in them, on the understanding that you will have to move if someone arrives who needs that seat. Please remember that not all disabilities are obvious from looking at someone. Everyone issued with an access pass has discussed their needs with us, it's not their responsibility to explain their conditions to you or yours to question whether the seat is really needed. Any comments like this will be considered the remit of the harassment policy". Something like that would prevent rare incidents like the one Lou experienced. Mainstream cons have a lot to learn about access from 9worlds :-)