Easter weekend of this year, I suffered a hip injury serious enough for doctors, X-rays, and a referral for physical therapy two times a week for most of the summer. What does this have to do with Dragon Con?
When this year’s convention began, I was still in recovery mode. On the advice of my PT and the demands of my friends, Disability Services became one of my first destinations at Dragon Con. I qualified for “seat in line, end of row” category. I thought I had prepared myself mentally and emotionally for the stigma of the sticker, but I was not at all prepared for the reality of navigating a con with a disability — even one, like Dragon Con, that offers a high level of disability services.
I have always tried to be aware, especially when at a convention, of those around me who have disabilities. I admire the willingness and motivation of any person to get out and participate in activities, regardless of a disability. In my head, I have known activities we able-bodied take for granted can pose difficulties for those dealing with disability every day. So I try to be courteous by giving up a closer seat in panels, waiting longer for an elevator, helping create paths through crowds, or any other way I see a person struggling that I have the ability to assist.
Being thrust onto the other side of the line has given me a new perspective on and, I hope, more understanding of what many attendees face every year at Dragon Con. The following are the things I observed or experienced that were ongoing through the weekend:
Less of a not-seeing-people struggle, but more of a deliberate ignoring or not caring. Coming from the Sheraton after badge pickup, I saw a woman in a wheelchair having trouble moving her wheels across the broken sidewalk paving. A younger lady with her was trying her best to maneuver the chair over the bumps, rather unsuccessfully. Dozens of people in the crowd passed them by, most averting their gazes, others tossing looks of annoyance in the direction of the pair. About the time I was close enough to offer help, unsure if I really could help, two young men stopped and gladly offered their assistance to help the pair all the way to the Sheraton. Yes, this was a wonderful gesture, but more than 100 people had already passed by without a thought of offering help.
The one thing I personally experienced most was, in essence, the walking form of road rage. In the Sky Bridges, through the Atrium, and walking down the busiest areas of the street, I was routinely pushed by, muttered at by those behind me and squished into walls or rails that I was using to help keep my balance walking in the crowds. Yes, the disability stickers are smaller and hard to see at a glance. I don’t have a cane or walker because my therapists want me to use my leg. Unless a person must use some assistive device, there is no “tell” that they aren’t just being slowpokes. Seriously, at Dragon Con? The traffic backup through the crowds in certain areas is legendary. It’s not an excuse to run over and ignore people. If someone walks slowly in that crowd there is a reason, other than taking in the sights.
As I stated before, I admire all those who deal with issues, whether physical or mental, who put themselves out there in life and participate in activities like science fiction/pop culture conventions. I know it requires a lot of effort, both mental and physical, to accomplish. Dragon Con covers a five square block area in downtown Atlanta. Even when the con is not in town, it’s a busy area. The influx of con attendees only inflates the numbers. Neither sidewalks nor pavement terrain are flat or even. Every year, the scope of events and venues grows larger. All these factors only add to the physical effort required to move from place to place. Dragon Con does provide a bus service to help alleviate this problem. However, the drawback is one has to know where the bus stops are located, and the signage can be difficult to see in the crowds. Plus, it can be inconvenient to wait for the bus, get on the bus, ride to the location, get off the bus, and make one’s way into their destination.
At times, I could hitch a ride with our hotel’s shuttle driver going from one side to the other. At others, I had to get there under my own gimpy power. Going from the lower level of the Hyatt all the way to the Sheraton took all my energy, and except for my leg injury, I am in good health. I did that jaunt a couple times during the con going from one panel location to another. By the time I made it to the Sheraton, I was ready to sit down and rest. That included having a “plus one” friend to assist me. Because of the difficulty I had traveling between the connected hotels, I decided to not even try to go to anything at the Westin or, after hearing about the congestion from friends, the vendor hall in the AmericasMart.
While I sat in the Disability areas for panels, I noticed all around me people for whom I knew it had taken even more effort than I had to exert to get to the location. Sometimes, I was exhausted with pain throbbing the length of my leg. All I wanted to do was sit with my leg propped up for even a small amount of time.
I realized this combination of exhaustion and pain was how many of my fellow attendees who must use Disability Services for either a permanent or chronic health issue feel a great deal of the time. Others risked anxiety or panic attacks, still issues that cause pain and exhaustion. However, most never showed it. If they made any reference to being exhausted or in pain, it was passing and usually with a wry smile. They were as excited to see the cast of their favorite show or a panel that showcased their favorite fandom as any person capable of standing in line.
The physical effort means those with disabilities have to pick and choose even more between panels, events, and venues than the able-bodied do. Ever hear of Spoon Theory? Especially at cons, those spoons have to be used wisely. A couple of my friends must make use of Disability Services. One has chronic back and shoulder issues caused by a car accident a few years ago. Another has spinal disc issues. Neither can stand for very long without intense pain overtaking them. We all usually participate in and enjoy the night events at Dragon Con. This year, we were so exhausted and out of spoons at the end of each day that we failed to attend our usual parties. I couldn’t have danced anyway, even though I love dancing, and the dance parties at Dragon are one of the few times I get to dance each year. One evening, I tried to talk at least one friend into attending the Labyrinth viewing and singalong with me. I ended up falling asleep lying across a bed before the event started. I understand now why they often need a rest period between day and night events. The sheer physical effort to endure a Dragon Con day is exhausting for those with disabilities, even when they take breaks and quiet times during that day.
Not the annoyance those with disabilities certainly experience during a convention like Dragon Con, but the obvious and overt annoyance of able-bodied attendees toward the disability section. The rudely pushing by or practically overrunning persons with trouble navigating the crowds are certainly part of the annoyance. It’s also you and a friend walking by a line to the disability seats while being stared daggers at and hearing the mutterings about special privileges. Or the louder whispers that many of us don’t look disabled. They think we’re telling stories to get the stickers so we can be guaranteed a seat in panels, or helping our friends get in as our plus one. I have heard all these statements made while standing in line for panels at Dragon Con as an able-bodied person.
It’s a prejudice that somehow a person with a disability sticker is getting some kind of special treatment or preference that isn’t needed for most of them. After my experience at this Dragon Con as a person with one of those stickers, it’s only a small perk for all the other issues those people put up with every day. If someone was trying to game the system by getting a disability sticker needlessly, they would take it off their badge by the end of the day. People with stickers get to go in at the front of the line in panels or photo ops. So what? That privilege actually helps with the effort those needing disability stickers have to expend. After spending the weekend as a part of that group, I say let them have those very small perks.
A few days ago, as I was pulling this article together, I saw a post on a Dragon Con social media thread about those at the con with disabilities. The original post was supportive, about an incident that person was involved in that concerned helping a person with a disability get a space on an elevator. What shocked me was how much the comments expressed the annoyance people feel about the disabled attendees at Dragon Con, and why any able-bodied person should be inconvenienced by a person with a disability, like giving up a space in an elevator. I can now answer that: Besides basic decency, there will likely come a day when you are that person needing a little help from Disability Services and you probably will need it for a problem that may not be readily visible to others.
One day, in the Disability area outside the Walk of Fame, I met a couple of gentlemen who found themselves suddenly in need of Disability Services. The “plus one” of the duo gave up his seat beside his friend for me to sit down, which I badly needed at that moment. My hip was hurting enough that I was visibly limping. I will talk to people wherever I am, so I asked the guy next to me about coming to Dragon Con while on crutches. They both laughed, and recounted that the previous evening, he had a bad fall in the hotel room. He had to go to emergency, and came out in a full leg brace and on crutches. They considered cutting their trip short, but decided to stay and see how things went. Both were still having a good time, but they admitted it was harder than they thought it would be to get around. They also noticed that the general crowd often didn’t want to give way for them to maneuver through the crowd.
From my experience, this factor is a two-way street.
Earlier, I mentioned a post I read about someone helping a person get space on an elevator. In the account, the person with a visible disability needed the elevator, but it was always full when it got to that level. As the person was there with her, it opened on a group of obviously able-bodied persons. The poster had asked the younger people if they would be willing to take the stairs to the next level (their destination) so the other person could use the elevator. From the post, those in the elevator were not open to this idea, and felt the person with the disability should just wait till space opened up.
Anyone who has waited on an elevator in a host hotel knows how difficult this is. I’m convinced the idea of getting on even if you go up to go down or go down to go up originated at Dragon Con and, most likely, the Marriott. Would it really be that much of an effort to give up space in an elevator and use stairs for a few flights? Especially for someone who no matter how much they wish cannot use the stairs? Would it really ruin your day? Your stubbornness and disrespect could ruin that person’s day if they can’t get where they’re going. Many times, the person with the disability is trying to return to their or possibly a friend’s room because they need a break or because they need vital medicine. Many times, that person is using their last bit of remaining physical effort to get to that safe space. If someone needs more space to maneuver through the crowd, let them through. Allow the limping person or one with a cane to get in front of you on the escalator, or offer them a place to sit. You’ll still get where you’re going in plenty of time. Plus, showing respect will make you feel better, too.
I’ve heard enough times that for every controversy, there’s at least a kernel of truth in the complaint. I tend to believe it’s true. My friends and I observed times when those utilizing Disability Services were the rude and demanding ones. The rules clearly state that if a person arrives late, that is, after those waiting in the Disability area have already been seated, that the person must wait until the room is loaded. If there is available space, you will get a seat.
My friends and I observed several times when someone with a Disability sticker would arrive to a panel late and still demand to receive all the services the sticker said they were eligible to get, like a first row seat. Other times and places, like the Walk of Fame, I overheard others arguing with a Disability Services staff person over the services the person felt entitled to receive.
Both sides, able-bodied and those with disabilities, could benefit from showing each other a little more respect during Dragon Con. It’s actually easy, and I promise it doesn’t actually hurt.
There is one group I want to throw out a lot of respect for: Dragon Con Disability Services staff. All those I had to deal with were friendly and caring. The staff really gets that disability comes in many forms, not always readily visible. They get that invisibility doesn’t mean it hurts less or is easier to cope with than a visible disability.
They have many persons to deal with, and I never once saw anyone lose their cool under the pressure.
One small interaction I had sums up my experience with this hard-working, dedicated group of people. I decided to attempt the trek from the Sheraton to the lower level of the Hyatt for panels that followed each other with less than an hour between. Even though I hurried as fast as I was capable and the crowd would allow, I reached the second panel after the Disability area had been seated. I asked the head of the line person if I could sit in the chairs while I waited for space. While I was sitting there, the person working Disability Services for the room came up and asked which panel I was there to see. I told her, and she said they had already been seated, and kindly went over the rules. I said I knew, but that I had been trying to make it from a panel that ended at the Sheraton, and had gotten there as fast as I could. She thought for a moment, then said, “I know there will be space in this panel, so I’m going to escort you in now to a seat, even though we’ve started seating the line.” So she did that. I didn’t expect or ask for anything special. She was simply being kind and respectful. That’s the type of treatment I received the entire weekend from Disability Services, even when our group arrived at a panel to be told that even the Disability line had been capped. For all you naysayers, that does happen.
These were my observations during one year’s use of Disability Services at Dragon Con. By next year’s con, I should be back to my normal status of being a friend’s plus one or, a lot of the time, back to standing in the line enduring the Atlanta Labor Day weekend weather. However, the majority of people using the Disability Services don’t have that option. Their disabilities are permanent or chronic. This is a piece of their experience every year. Dragon Con does a fantastic job trying to bring awareness to con attendees who require assistance. The rest of us need to pull our heads out of the proverbial sand long enough to pay attention and be willing to act, even if it causes us a small amount of momentary inconvenience — because one day, that person needing the assistance will be you.