Thursday 21 August 2014

Worldcon on Wheels

(For my followers who aren't SF/F fans, Worldcon is the annual World Science Fiction Convention, which is held in a different city each year (local convention groups bid to run it). It's mostly stateside, but gets out to the UK about once a decade. This year the 72nd Worldcon was LonCon3, being held at the Excel centre in Dockland from 14th to 18th August.

For SF/F fans who don't otherwise know me, I'm also a disability rights activist, so I probably came at Worldcon from a slightly different angle to most people - about two feet lower and on wheels <g>).

Three wheelchair users in one elevator, author on left, Kaberett at back, Trialia to right
Worldcon Wheelchair Tetris

Plotting to Attend

When I saw Worldcon was coming to London (I live just outside) I had an immediate flash of pleasure, rapidly dowsed by a bucketful of cold reality. I haven't been to a Worldcon since Intersection in Glasgow in 1995, I was at Eastercon around the same time, but I'm not quite sure if that was the one before or the one after, those are the last two conventions I attended. I had started to use crutches for my disability a few months before Intersection and it became rapidly obvious that fatigue was a major problem. My base physical disability (there are others layered on top) is Hypermobility Syndrome (HMS), which may also be Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome-Hypermobility Type (EDS). Having HMS/EDS (being bendy as we refer to ourselves) means all your muscles are working harder, all the time, as the tendons are too sloppy to hold joints together properly, so pain and fatigue are major problems. I'm fortunate in my HMS that I don't dislocate anything major on a daily basis, but minor subluxations - ankles, shoulders, wrists, ribs (ow! subluxed ribs are exquisite, even breathing hurts), sacro-iliac joints - happen all of the time. Ultimately I decided it just wasn't possible to squeeze fandom in while struggling to manage with daily life and work.

Then, late in June, I had a *headdesk* moment during a conversation with my mother.
Mother: "<mobility impaired family friend> is going down to London to visit her grandson, so she's hiring a wheelchair."

At that point my participation in the conversation went onto automatic pilot.

"Hiring a wheelchair" *Headdesk*, *Headdesk*, *Headdesk*.

It was far from the first time I've thought of using a wheelchair, I've even discussed it with medics in the past, but perky physios tend not to approve of voluntarily going wheelie and historically family attitudes towards wheelchairs haven't been entirely healthy, so, despite having given it considerable thought, I'd always let myself be put off. But hiring a wheelchair just to get to an event had simply never occurred to me, and hiring that chair could then be a lever to change the way family and medics think about me using one - wheels within wheels, on wheels.

Things did not proceed smoothly. First of all I promptly badly sprained my ankle (I fell off my wheelie bin - don't ask!), and it was the 'good' ankle, cue four weeks in a walker-boot which I finally got out of about a fortnight before the con, and the ankle still isn't quite right, so doing the Con on crutches was even less practical than usual. And then there's me. Deciding to do something is easy, making my neurodiverse self actually do it is rather more difficult - the neurodiverse label is new this year, I was talking to a psych about pain management and suddenly realised he'd segued into assessing me for Aspergers. There's no formal diagnosis, the local Autism service gets 10 times as many referrals as they can handle, but just knowing a psych acknowledges it isn't 'just me' is a tremendous relief, it just doesn't make dealing with people any easier. Worldcon membership, online form, no problem, and I live close enough I didn't need to arrange accommodation, but actually sorting out a chair? Let's push the deadline again.

I finally approached various powerchair hire firms the week before the Con, one had everything out on hire, the other two kept pulling more and more add-on charges out of the small-print hat. Hiring a powerchair for the five days of the Con was going to cost me £250, which is the same again that membership and travel were costing me and enough to buy a medium-price, non-customised foldable chair, or enough of the percentage of the price of an individually fitted, rigid-framed manual to be noticeable (people underestimate the cost of wheelchairs, you can spend over £10,000 on a manual chair if you need all the bells and whistles, a powerchair with the same add-ons will cost more than most cars). So I settled for hiring a manual chair through LonCon's access arrangements with Event Mobility, which only cost me a much more reasonable £40 for the five days. I could also have hired a scooter for £100 through them, but my bendy shoulders don't like the hands-outstretched position a scooter's tiller demands.

Accessing Worldcon

I rolled up at the Excel bright and early on Thursday 14th, and I have to say Access was excellent. I was greeted by one of the volunteers before I even reached the registration queue, which they told me was 45 minutes long at that point, and whisked away to the Access Desk, where I was given a seat while the volunteer dashed off to pick up my badge and registration packet. Even the failure of the Access ribbons to appear was being dealt with courtesy of improvisation with tape and a marker pen in the best traditions of fandom. A photographer approached the Access people while I was sitting there and commented he worked within the Convention industry, and had never seen as comprehensive an access policy as LonCon was providing (which is kind of scary when you think we had roughly that level of provision in place 19 years ago at Intersection).

Having done Access, I moved over to Event Mobility at the next table, and had a heart-in-mouth moment when their guy announced that he had only brought attendant-propelled chairs (i.e. without the larger wheels for self-propelling). I honestly don't know what he can have been thinking, an indoor event like LonCon is absolutely perfect for self-propelled chairs, and a self-propelled chair can always be attendant-propelled, while the reverse isn't true. Fortunately he was wrong, he had brought at least one, and even better he was quite happy for me to hang onto it right through the Con, I'd expected to have to turn it in each night. On the downside, adjustment of chair to user wasn't ideal, the footplates just couldn't be lowered enough to suit my legs, but I was able to improvise by using the wedge cushion I normally use in the car (which fortunately I'd brought), and reversing it so that my knees were boosted a couple of inches higher. (And if you consider at 5'8" I'm not exactly long-legged in comparison to many people...).

And so off to panels, and the fan village, and the dealer room, and all the rest of the Con....

Wheelie (Mis)Adventures

I hadn't expected to be travelling with the chair, but the DLR is in theory wheelchair accessible - I say theoretically because every time I tried to get on at Stratford International I ended up with front-castors jammed between platform and train. I did have to frantically lunge the first time that happened to stop a 'helpful' passer-by trying to lift the entire chair, with me in it, by one of the armrests. This would have handily ripped the entire side of the chair off. Offers of help are always appreciated, but do always ask first, and be understanding if we say 'no thanks'. I've had friends have major damage done to their chairs by people who were 'only trying to help', and others abused for turning down offers of help - something I've faced myself on crutches. But other than that, the DLR was pretty much a dream to use - OTOH a powerchair-using friend said it was effectively unusable with her chair due to similar problems with wheels catching.

Using the train between Stratford International and Chatham, where I live, was somewhat more of an adventure. In theory you're supposed to ring and book passenger assistance 24 hours in advance, to ensure someone is there with the ramp when you need it to get on or off (as there's a drop of about a foot from carriage to platform), but if you don't know when you'll be travelling, or even that you'll be travelling with a chair, as happened on Thursday for me, then you're at the mercy of the railway gods. Fortunately I've enough wheelie friends to know what can happen, and if even Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson can be left having to throw her chair onto the platform and crawl off a train at midnight, then best to be prepared. I specifically didn't ask for assistance that first night, just to confirm I could get on and off with the chair if I needed to, the rest of the time I did.

Ooh boy, talk about rolling the dice and casting your fortune to the fates! I don't want anyone to read this as criticism of the station or train staff, they were without exception pleasant and willing to go out of their way to make sure I got where I needed to, but the system isn't quite working. Of the eight journeys I made, assistance didn't turn up to get me off at Chatham on the Friday night, so I had to climb off while having passengers get the chair down for me (not having brought my crutches - because I had the chair! - and electing to wear ankle braces meant this was a lot more difficult for me than it had been on the Thursday); while on Saturday two guys turned up with the ramp, but at entirely the wrong station.... It then took the guard 15 minutes and three different numbers to try and raise someone at Chatham to let them know I was coming. The same thing nearly happened heading to Stratford on the Friday, the on-train staff assuming I was going to St. Pancras, as there was a passenger with booked assistance to there from Chatham and they simply assumed I was him when he didn't turn up, while on Monday Chatham weren't able to raise Stratford and had to ask me to ask the on-board staff to try and raise them. C'mon, Southeastern, that's four trips out of eight with issues - I just hope the safety critical messaging is more reliable!

Once back in Chatham, my house is only a couple of hundred yards from the station, but up an ever-so-slightly steep hill. There was no way I was pushing up that, so I waddled up each night using the wheelchair as a walker. Coming back down in the mornings, though... there's that temptation to think 'how difficult can it be?' Difficult, no; dangerous, possibly; scary, Hell Yes! Again it's fortunate I know enough wheelies to know to brake by pushing palms against pushrims rather than trying to use the actual brakes or to grab the pushrims, and that I was already using a pair of wheelchair gloves with my crutches, but there is a limit to how hard you can push to decelerate, and if the bank is steep enough then you may be accelerating harder than you're decelerating. I hit the actual brakes when I realised it was getting away from me, and the right bit harder than the left, cue 90 degree handbrake turn.... I very nearly ended up catapulted into rush-hour traffic! That prompted an urgent discussion with wheelie friends, and advice to use at least one foot on the ground to brake, as well as the pushrims. That did the trick, but there was still one section at the bottom of the hill that must have been just that little bit steeper, where you felt your foot skidding on the ground, the wheelchair starting to accelerate, and your heart starting to beat faster.... If I ever have to do that trip down to the station regularly, I'm driving ;)

The Curse of the Pedestrian

Worldcon didn't have quite the same dangers and misadventures as my journey home, but that's not to say you didn't need your wits about you! After the Paralympics, LonCon3 had the highest percentage of disabled crowd members I've ever seen, yet a lot of people seemed blissfully unaware of the wheelies, wobblies and scooter users amongst them. And when I say blissfully unaware, I mean to the point of trying to walk through us. Within the first couple of hours I had had to take evasive action from two people walking at high-speed while texting, and the rest of the con wasn't much better. People with mobility impairments simply can't get out of your way quickly, particularly in crowds, we need you to be the ones to take evasive action, and to look down far enough that you can notice someone who only comes four feet off the ground or less (or in the case of one person walking rapidly towards me while staring at his toes, look up!). And it's not just wheelies who need you to be aware, I was passed by several semi-autonomous, independently-roving kidlets, some of whom didn't top 24 inches.... 

People were in general perfectly willing to help and to step out of the way - thank you! - but if you're going to grab a door to help, do warn the disabled person, we may be leaning on it or otherwise relying on it to get through.

Another phenomenon I noticed was that I mostly ended up talking to other wheelies. That might just have been my neurodiverse awkwardness kicking in, but it was largely other wheelies initiating conversations with me, and the one non-wheelie I talked to extensively was another neurodiverse type I'd arranged to meet up with in advance (Hi, Marieke! <waves>). Maybe it was worse for me as an effectively first-time con-goer, but please, don't just look down, talk to us, just as you'd talk to anyone else.

Wheeling Free

I haven't just given up on going to cons, I've given up on pretty much everything but a once a week meeting with friends for coffee. There's not much point in going to a gallery, say, or a museum, a concert, or the theatre, if you're in so much pain by the time you get to the activity that you simply can't enjoy it, doubly so if you're then laid up for several days because of it. I do occasionally push my luck deliberately, my pain management people says you have to in order not to get cabin fever, but my longest recovery period on record is a full year, and I'm not certain I ever got everything back after that one - OTOH, how many people have spent time gliding in the Alps, rafting down glacial rivers or sailing in a Force 9? Sometimes you just have to think yeah, I'm going to bite the consequences on this one.

So when I planned on going to Worldcon, I was planning on it meaning a certain amount of pain, because that's what being out and about always means, but once I had the chair.... Off the train at Stratford, over to the lift, up to the concourse, whizz over to the DLR, lift down to the platform (unhook chair from hole between platform and train), off at Canning Town, lift down to the ticket hall, lift back up to the other DLR platform, slalom through the waiting crowd, roll onto the Becton train, roll off at Prince Regent, lift up to the concourse and wheel into the whirlwind that is Worldcon. And no pain. I seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in lifts, but lifts versus pain, Hell yes!

I tended to flag by about 7PM, so I missed the late-night stuff I might have caught if I was staying on site, but in five 9:30AM to 7PM days, with 90 minutes of travelling tacked on at either end, I experienced less pain than I would in any normal day of activity, in fact than I sometimes experience after my Saturday lunchtime coffee sessions. I'd expected the chair to help, what I hadn't expected was for it to make a massive level of difference.

Wheelchair Stalking

As I've said, there were quite a lot of wheelies in the Worldcon crowd, and as I expect to be in the market for a chair sooner rather than later, I was studying what I could see around me. I was well aware that my hire-chair was less than ideally suited for me given I have major issues around sitting comfort, though whether it was worth the cost of going up to a customised chair I was still in two minds about given I was only contemplating occasional use (list price of a bottom-end, non-customised, folding manual, £150 to £200, list price of a bottom-end, customised, rigid-framed manual, £1200-1500). One chair I noticed pretty quickly was a rigid manual with a Jay custom back and a headrest. Given I have damage to both lumbar and cervical spine (bendies positively collect joint injuries), I immediately started wondering how useful the customised set-up was. I then ended up behind the chair and its user in a panel, and when they wheelied back onto the chair's anti-tips to use it as though it had tilt-in-space, a feature that lets you lie back in a chair, which an experienced wheelie friend has suggested I need, and which normally adds a couple of thousand to the cost, I was in love (with the chair, you understand). At this point I was positively stalking that chair.

In one of those serendipitous Worldcon link-ups, the chair's owner, Kaberett, and I ended up together in a group headed for coffee after Charlie Stross' The Ruling Party panel on Monday. Just to boost the serendipity even further, the group also included my online friend Trialia in her powerchair, who I had never physically met before, and it turns out we're all neurodiverse bendies. Anyone want to work out the odds on that one? Packs of wheeled bendies stalking the halls of Worldcon did draw a few glances (especially when one or other of us popped up out of their chair - yes, most wheelies can walk to some degree), though probably not as many as we'd have gotten in the Real World (TM). I had to laugh once we were sat around a table with coffee when I realised that all three of us were delving into the depths of the bags on the backs of our chairs, and that none of us were bothering to turn around to do it - there are occasional advantages to being bendy!

Anyway, having been introduced I confessed to my stalking, and Kaberett pointed out we were both similar sizes, so popped out of their chair and said 'try it'.

O! M! G! It was like pulling on a perfectly fitted glove. Well, nearly perfectly fitted, I'm probably a fraction wider across the back, but hips, head, even ribs were all suddenly supported in exactly the way I needed, and the balance of the chair as I moved was so much better than the hire-chair (Kaberett commented they'd looked at the hire-chair earlier and thought 'hope he didn't pay money for that').

Apparently my face was a picture, "you looked like things suddenly didn't hurt and weren't as exhausting! It was great". Now if you consider that was how I was already feeling while trying out the hire-chair vs crutches, and that Kaberett's chair wasn't quite a perfect fit, then it really does show just how much difference a properly fitted chair can make. Just that brief trial made me completely reassess what I wanted from a chair and how much I was willing to spend to get it. I'm not joking when I say it could potentially be life-changing.

Worldcon Wheelie Woes

While Worldcon was overwhelmingly a positive experience for me, that's not to say that it got things perfectly right when it came to disability. Issues started pre-Con with a negative use of 'autistic' in the description of the panel on German SF. Kaberett flagged that one up and the reaction was exactly as it should be, a correction to the website and an apology in the Pigeon Post that they couldn't correct the already printed what's-on guides.

There were a bunch of issues around wheelchair/scooter spaces. I was still finding rooms that didn't have any wheelchair spaces marked (London Suite 1) as late as Sunday evening (Bear's reading of 'Shoggoths in Bloom' was one of the highlights of my Worldcon, I love her work and I love that story), and there was obviously a blanket assumption that no wheelchair user could possibly have both a hearing and a mobility impairment, which meant that wheelchair spaces were generally no further forward than the middle of the room and often entirely at the back. I know several wheelchair users who have both hearing and mobility impairments, indeed whose impairments are co-morbid (meaning that medically they are expected to often go hand in hand with each other) and I met a couple of very prominent members of fandom who also met that definition over the weekend. There were definitely complaints on Sunday that the allocated seating in the auditorium for hearing-impaired fans during the Hugo Awards was on the opposite side of the stage to the podium. I was at the back of that block of seating and I certainly struggled to see Geoff and Justina's lips given how far away they were (and given they were name-checking at least one of the people struggling to lip-read them...).

A further problem with the provision for wheelchair users was the apparent assumption that wheelchair users don't come in couples....

Equally there seems to have been little thought given to wheelchair-using panel members (I didn't actually see any, but there were certainly several diversity panels which as a disability rights activist I potentially had the background to be on). I was corrected after suggesting there was no ramp for a panel that specifically addressed the absence of disabled people in fantasy (it was hidden at the back of the podium), but for many of the panels in the smaller rooms the panel was tight against the back wall without sufficient space for a wheelchair user to access their spot. Sitting the disabled panel member semi-detached at the end of the table isn't really an acceptable solution and a major issue for those of us who have problems looking to the side).

And what goes for the panel rooms goes doubly so for the main auditorium. What would we have done if a wheelchair user had won a Hugo, or nominated a wheelchair user to accept for them? The stairs at the front certainly weren't accessible, I have no idea if there was a ramp at the servant's entrance back, but that certainly wouldn't have been ideal. Would we have been looking at another Tanni Grey-Thompson /Sports Personality of the Year 2000 moment, with the winner having to be carried on stage by a horde of hefty volunteers? Any access solution that doesn't provide for disabled people to access the space alongside non-disabled is inadequate at best, and for a newly constructed edifice, a full generation on from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, just not acceptable.

As for the bright idea of labelling wheelchair spaces 'Reserved for Mobie' - I overheard at least one wheelchair user asking who this 'Mobie' was and had a discussion with several others as to whether it was possibly slang for a wheelchair in another European language, c.f. rolli in German. If you're going to use slang, can it at least be slang the relevant people will recognise?

Then there was the great scooter-shaming fiasco in Pigeon Post 7, which saw scooters banned from the main elevators, and which had several disabled people I encountered genuinely angry at how they were being addressed. As far as I can recall, I actually rode those elevators with someone in a Class 3 scooter (the biggest, the type Event Mobility was hiring out) almost as soon as I'd arrived, and it took my chair and their scooter without an issue, and that was while I still trying to remind myself how to steer a chair after not using one in several years. Even if there was an issue of physically fitting some scooters into the lifts, Class 3 scooters are only a fraction of all scooters (admittedly a large one). I saw at least one Luggie being used, and that's a Class 1 scooter that's smaller (and slower!) than my manual chair. I'm very aware of issues around the safe speed that scooters can be used, and at no point did I see a Class 3 being used in its on-road 8mph mode, or in its 4mph pavement mode at a speed I would consider excessive for the people around - on the other hand I did, as I noted earlier, see an awful lot of pedestrians walking around without due care and attention for the wheelchair and scooter users around them. Beyond the need for the ban, there was the wording used that pretty much criticised every scooter user at the convention. Every wheelchair user I spoke to was irritated by it, never mind the scooter users.

Some of this criticism may seem a little harsh, it doesn't change the fact that I'm very grateful for all the access provision that was made, and for all of the people who opened up spaces for me, held doors and whatever, usually without needing to be asked, but seeing a solution that's 85% of the way to being perfect just brings out a drive in me to get it that last 15%. And LonCon3 may be over, but the access lessons at each new convention we learn need to apply to every convention that comes after, starting with Shamrokon this weekend. (And if you think this is harsh, just wait 'til you hear me on IDS and the DWP <g>).

There are a few mobility issues that weren't down to LonCon, but are really issues for Excel London, worryingly one of those was a basic health and safety issue. I think I used pretty much all of the accessible toilets over the course of the convention. In almost every one of those, the emergency call cord was knotted at least 18 inches clear of the floor, or looped around the grab-rail to the side of the toilet, in some cases it had been cut off at that height. This is a common problem with disabled toilets, but a serious one and not one I expect to see in as prominent a facility as Excel. Part M of the Building Regs, Diagram 20, specifies that the lower pull bangle on the emergency call cord must be 100mm (4 inches) from the floor, this is because the cord must be accessible to someone who has fallen while trying to use the facilities and is unable to lift themselves from the floor. For someone with limited arm use, this can only be guaranteed by having the cord at almost floor level. Almost inevitably knotted, cut-off or looped cords are the result of inadequately trained cleaning staff who simply see them as a useless irritation because no one has ever explained to them why they are there. It should be on the cleaning supervisor's checklist to ensure every cord is accessible at floor level every day, and it should probably be on the Access checklist for every con. Equally it should be a checklist item to assure that the transfer space to the side of the toilet (the side with the liftable grab-rail) is clear of obstructions to the back wall as a wheelchair user may need to use that space to transfer from chair to toilet. Blocking them with waste-bin and sanitary waste-bin, as with most of the loos I used, not ideal....

It shouldn't be so difficult to get disabled loos right, but apparently even Dyson can cock it up when it comes to wheelie human factors! Those Dyson Air-Blade handdryers, the ones screaming like the entire toilet was about to lift into orbit? Cool as all hell, but WTF do I put my feet and knees?

Crossing back and forth between the con and Excel's responsibility, the doors into the rooms were marginal for getting a chair through, I lost count of the number of times I barked my knuckles on the door frames and on a couple of occasions was lucky not to rip-off significant chunks of flesh. Yet all the doorways had either full or partial double doors. The problem was many of the second doors, whether full or partial, seemed to be bolted shut most of the time. Why? On at least one occasion (the door into the London Suite) I saw an Excel staffer open the second door for me (thank you!), but then rebolt it afterwards. *headdesk* why? You've just seen I need both open and I'm probably coming back shortly... As a general message to volunteers, if there is going to be a wheelie coming through, please make sure both doors are open, their fingers will thank you!

On the irritating rather than dangerous level, if a bin blocks access to a lift button, as was the case with the main lifts, to the point that you have to sit a staff member there to press it for the wheelies who can't otherwise reach it, it's probably a sign you need to move the damned bin! And finally (at last I hear you all cry!) that blasted textured surface outside most of the lifts on Level 3 feels like you're rolling your bare backside over a cheesegrater!

Wheeling to a Close

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at WorldCon, it was just such a stimulating five days, stuffed with all the panels I went to on diversity, YA fiction and the business of writing (I'm planning further posts on all three of these strands) and interspersed with meeting all those people who make fandom such a delight: Marieke Nijkamp and all the good work she and her co-conspirators are doing with We Need Diverse Books; Trialia, who I've known online for years, without realising she's a filker and general fan, not just a Whovian; Kaberett, somehow managing to note down everything happening in some of the most complex panels, and whose wheelchair may literally change my life; and the chance to briefly catch up with Justina Robson - when Geoff talked at the opening of the Hugos of meeting Justina at Lumb Bank all those years ago, I was there on that same course, and if any one of us was obviously going to succeed, it was Justina, and I'm so glad that she did.

So is this the end? Well, maybe for this blog piece, but hopefully not for me in fandom and convention going - it turns out I just need a set of wheels, and arranging to get them is something LonCon3 has kicked into high gear.


  1. I also noted - and this is an ExCel problem - that a lot of the accessible loos were incredibly strongly perfumed. Because obviously people with access needs are never going to have "being able to breathe" as one of those needs...

    1. Very good point, unfortunately all too common a problem, and on the increase not decrease. I've BTDT with respect to buildings and chemical sensitivity, so definite sympathy on this one. One of the few good points of being summarily kicked out by my former employers for daring to be disabled (a large UK aerospace company I'm forbidden to name) was that the chronic sinus and headache issues that had plagued me for years 'magically' disappeared!

  2. Interesting. As a temporarily able person myself I'd noticed the visible access measures but no idea of how well they suited the people who actually needed them. I have to say that the London underground even for an able person like me can be hard to deal with, with lifts going down to the platform but then still a small staircase that needs to be negotiated, which is hard enough with a large suitcase, let alone in wheelchair.

  3. Also, will you be at Eastercon next year? If so, you may want to talk to the concom there? (And hope to meet you then!)

    1. Strongly considering Eastercon, but really still feeling my way back into fandom. I'd anticipate signing up in the near future. To a degree it's dependent on sorting out a permanent set of wheels .

    2. Hello. We don't know each other, I'm sorry, but I'm a member of the committee for next year's Eastercon, Dysprosium, and I was also a member of the committee for Loncon 3. So I was very interested in this on both counts!

      I'm very glad that you enjoyed Loncon 3, and also pleased that the thought and work that had gone into access provision made a positive difference. That said, I'm sorry about the issues that you and others still encountered: things that were outside our control, things that we hadn't foreseen, and things that we just plain got wrong.

      As you say, Loncon 3 is over, but we always had in our mind our 'legacy' - especially to UK fandom and conventions. As much as any resources we leave behind, or the continuing benefits of the event's high profile, that legacy has to include lessons learnt.

      Dysprosium aims to welcome and be accessible to all fans. Accessibility is something that the committee had in mind when selecting a venue, and it's something we still have in mind in talking to the hotel and planning the event. The hotel has accessible accommodation, and the convention itself will take place entirely on the ground floor, all accessible, with a minimum of ramps. The venue is our starting point; the way that we use it, and make it possible for everyone to use it, comes next, and that's where the experience from Loncon 3 and other conventions, and feedback like yours here, will be enormously helpful. I hope you do come next Easter, and I hope that it will be as positive a time as Loncon 3. Good luck with finding a set of wheels!

    3. Really good points there, Rose. Disabled people come in all manner of individual variations, with all manner of individual access requirements. Postural support is one a lot of transport companies choose to ignore (I'm too cynical to believe 'forget), and one that doesn't just affect the most extensively disabled people like hoist users, but all manner of disabilities, right through to (semi-) ambulant bendies like me - I've had 45 minutes in an inappropriate seat put me in bed for a week.

      Very good points WRT obstructions of a theoretically accessible level space, the bin next to the main lifts at LonCon that meant they needed someone to press the call button for wheelies who couldn't reach it is a prime example. I found the entry/exit to the fan village mildly annoying every time I used it because that angled tape separating entry and exit meant I couldn't roll out in a straight line. Door width and double doors not being both opened I've already mentioned.

      And a ringing 'absolutely!' on the toilet stuff, I've lost count of the number of disabled loos that have had me looking around them shaking my head and saying 'what were they thinking!?!' - the Airblades provoked that at Excel - my knees and feet are stuck out in front of me, where are they supposed to go when I'm sticking my hands in the slot? The old-fashioned tin hand-dryers may not be as stylish, but they're a hell of a lot more accessible!

    4. Paul: thanks, and 'legacy' was exactly the point I was thinking when writing this. How do we make certain the lessons learnt aren't immediately forgotten - through writing them down and discussing them in blogs like this is a start.

      I hope I'll be at Dysprosium, but a few things to sort out first!

  4. FWIW, yes, there was a ramp to the main Hugos stage from backstage.

  5. Then there was the great scooter-shaming fiasco in Pigeon Post 7, which saw scooters banned from the main elevators

    As the person in charge of The Pigeon Post: that was given to me by the Access team, and printed verbatim. Take it up with them rather than implying that it was someone on my team.

    (Sorry, I'm getting really sick of people telling me off for it!)

    1. There was no implication here, and I find your attitude of "take it up with them" when it wasn't being taken up with you rather offensive in its own right...

    2. I'm sorry that you do, but as I wasn't addressing my comment to you and have no desire to get into an argument, I'm not going to say anything more in response.

    3. Hmm, I really do find this reply problematical, and I don't know how to respond to it without it becoming confrontational - I'd prefer that not to happen, but it's an issue we have a right to raise and expect to be addressed.

      There was no intent to 'imply' anything. As a random wheelie I have no idea where the message originated, what I do know is that it was printed in Pigeon Post, and that a bunch of disabled con-goers, and their loved ones, were legitimately irritated about it. Someone needed to step in at some point, realise people were going to be offended, particularly by that last paragraph, and exercise editorial control, and I don't particularly care who that should have been as long as it happened.

      It didn't happen. That needed to be pointed out, as did the annoyance, and hopefully drawing attention to the issue will mean it doesn't happen again. As for 'take it up with the Access team', I'm choosing to raise it here, because here's where I blog.

      Speaking personally, I was particularly irritated by the tone of the message and the suggestion that disabled people were being negligent and irresponsible when the reality was that I was regularly dodging pedestrian congoers walking around with their attention focussed two feet above my head.

    4. Thanks for a considered reply, and sorry for venting.

      Personally, I would no more change the wording on a request for publication from Access than I would on one from, say, WSFS: I don't know enough personally about either area to be sure that I'm not going to completely change the meaning, or cause the wrong language, and so cause problems. So, I can only advise my team to print what they are sent unless they're absolutely *sure* that it won't adversely affect the meaning of the message: in this case, we weren't sure, so we didn't.

      I would have been much, much happier if someone had actually taken the time to contact the newsletter team during the convention: I'm not much of a one for social media anyway, and was incredibly busy during the convention so didn't have time (or energy) to track down negative remarks. As it is I came home and looked online to find a number of people complaining that PP, and therefore my team, had been horrible to disabled people. I'm sure that you can imagine, given how knackered I was/am (a lot of non-newsletter pre-con work as well!), what a kick in the teeth that was. If anyone had taken the time to actually contact us, I would have checked with Access and seen if they wanted to amend their statement, or make a comment on the reaction to it. If someone should have edited it (and see above re: that), someone should also have let us know that there was a problem rather than just being annoyed.

      On a personal level, my only Access issues are Aspie-related. I'm usually told off for being too cautious in my use of language, because I'm never sure what will offend. As someone without any experience of physical disabilities, I don't feel personally qualified to tell people what to do or to choose the language with which to do so. I am genuinely sorry that people were offended by something that we printed, but I'm also (I think reasonably) annoyed that blame is being implicitly placed with the wrong people.

      Anyway: see first paragraph. I am really glad that you had such a good experience with your quick try of someone else's chair: good luck with it in the future.

    5. I take your point re contacting the newsletter team, but that presumes we know how to contact them - and for mobility disabled people just getting around the con is consuming a lot more energy than for others. Social Media was the available medium for a lot of us, from me as an effective newbie, to extremely well known figures in fandom and publishing, and we could use it without having to move from our chairs, scooters, wherever we were.

      I know some con staffers were monitoring social media, because a tweet to me from Tria, complaining she was stuck at the back of a panel and could neither hear, nor see to lipread, with the additional complication of being a wheelchair user, was picked up by the moderator, who promptly made all the panel stand up when talking, and he noted he was doing that monitoring because of a wider con comms role, rather than just the moderating. Maybe the newsletter team, or the wider comms function, needs to include monitoring social media in its general functionality? In fact I'm surprised to hear there wasn't a general monitoring of social media/circulating of concerns to pre-empt just this kind of problem.

      The problem you face with the complaints is that Pigeon Post was the medium through which the Access message was delivered, and there's nothing to say 'this is Access speaking verbatim', so people are reacting to it as a PP issue, rather than an Access one. Maybe messages like that need to be explicitly tagged with a point of contact. My interpretation on reading it was that it had probably come from someone in the con hierarchy who wasn't an access specialist, as the language+reaction seemed so clumsy - but possibly I'd been prepped to judge it negatively as I'd seen the tweets about it the night before.

      Anyway, thanks for the response.

  6. There was a ramp in the Auditorium. I installed it myself, we had 2 5m straight runs with handrails to cover the 1.2m to the stage.

    1. Replying to both swaldman and wonkothesame. I'm glad to hear that there was a ramp, but how would you feel at being constantly asked to use the tradesman's entrance? Is sending someone around the back really the appropriate way to honour someone as the best in our field? (Especially considering one of the nominees has talked on social media about mobility issues at cons this year). Or to tell disabled fans in the audience that their diversity is equally valued? Should we still need to raise this in 2014?

      And, being technical, two 5m runs for a 1.2m rise fails to meet Part M. Maximum flight height specified by Part M is 500mm with a 1:20 slope, so 1.2m should have been met with 3 flights, with a minimum flight length of 10m for 500mm flights, or with 3 400mm flights and a minimum flight length of 7m (if I've got the pro-rata right).

    2. Or even 'WonkotheSane' - apologies, bendy fingers weren't cooperating.

    3. I have done a lot of research on how, precisely we could implement a proper ramp (with the ADA legal rise and run) for stages at fannish events.
      I have yet to find a theater that has a ramp in front of the stage. If anyone has an example I would be very interested in seeing how it works.

      Thinking about this, I feel like it is important to mention that, at least in the US, accessibility ramps also need to have a railing in order to be compliant, as not everyone who needs a ramp will be in a chair. Here is an example:

      I am concerned that the three runs required would significantly obscure the stage, and the nearest the front row can be would be at least 5 meters from the stage, which may impact the ability of the hard of hearing to lip read.

      Additionally, I understand that once the stage in installed, it cannot readily be moved, and the Masquerade and the Hugo award have opposite needs in regards to the location of the stage.

      The couple of theaters I found that specifically include dancers and actors with mobility disabilities either have no stage, or have the ramp behind the stage, but for performances, it is appropriate for performers to enter from behind the stage. Many other big professional award ceremonies have people enter from the side or the back. Most stages I have seen in person at conventions do not have enough room to have a ramp to the side regardless given the number of short runs that would be needed.

      I am not saying that what we have is perfect, but we are working towards better solutions, and myself, and many other people are putting significant thought into how to do better. The venues, from hotels to conventions centers are not useful allies in this venture. I understand and appreciate the frustration of the people who are excluded, and who are told to use the service entrance because the main entrance is inadequate, and told "well maybe we'll do it next year".

      Any advice people on this blog could offer on the best way to make an accessible stage would be welcome.


    4. The UK guidelines are in Part M of the Building Regulations, see Section 1.19 to 1.26 (technically the indoor ramp reqs are in Section 3, but that just refers you back to the outdoor ramp reqs in Section 1) - like the US regs a handrail is required on both sides. I do take your point with the size of a ramp - I've been thinking today about how to get a ramp up to my front door without obliterating my front garden! - however that doesn't supersede the principle that any award winner (or masquerade participant or whatever) should be using the same general access as any other, whether they be a walkie, wheelie or whatever. That doesn't mean only having a single point of access, but it does mean that if non-disabled access is to the front, then so should disabled access be - I can guarantee you it's a hot button issue for people who face it regularly! The particular problem I had with the Worldcon stage was it appeared to be a con-specific construction (whether that's true or not), that stepped access had been provided to the front, apparently as a con-specific design decision (again whether that's true or not), and that there was no obvious wheelchair access. That's the kind of thing that leaps out at you when you're disabled. I spent half the opening ceremony peering around hoping I was wrong about access.

      If there is existing access to the sides or rear, then that's what I'd recommend people use. If there isn't, try to keep people together. I'm not quite sure what the frontage of the LonCon stage was, but it looked to be about the length of my 60ft back garden and probably more, in which case you could likely have run two 10m flights, certainly two 7m flights, end to end, and taken the third flight down the side, meeting a set of steps there and meaning you're only losing 1.5m in front of the stage - the other alternative was to put all the flights at the side and lose the space there. The other approach with a custom stage is to limit how high it is, which has a knock-on effect to ramp length. 1m would have cut out the need for a third flight without any major loss of visibility.

    5. Forgot to add that I do appreciate the fact people are looking at this stuff!

    6. The confusion here appears to be coming from the "tradesman's entrance" concept. The back-of-stage position is considered to be the more valuable one, as it permits a dramatic entrance from behind the curtain, which most performers will want. This is not possible with a front-of-stage ramp. In fact, the question was specifically raised during planning as to whether the ramp would be completely obscured by the curtain so that you would not see somebody's head slowly rising above the stage (and some redesigning was done to make this not happen).

      This was also specifically requested for the masquerade, as apparently it is common for people to have costumes which are so ungainly that they cannot climb the treads onto the stage. These people need to get behind the curtain to make their entrance.

      So in short: the backstage location is used to allow ramp users of all forms to be performers, and not merely members of the public. The front-of-stage treads are the second-class entrance, and putting the ramp in that position would have effectively prohibited wheelchair users from being performers.

      While it's technically possible to have two ramps, it was a monstrously huge ramp and it would be hard to justify the expense. It would also have come at the cost of a couple of rows of seating, and there was some concern that the seating capacity of the hall was already around half the expected number of attendees.

      As far as building regulations are concerned - yes, we had that monster of a stage (60ft x 90ft x 4ft!) specially built, and were required by ExCel to put in a ramp to those specifications. I'm not actually sure whether we had a handrail on both sides - I never got a look at the thing after it was built, but the strongly worded advice from one of our wheelchair users on the tech team was that two handrails on a ramp of that width (which is the widest you can buy) will have people constantly bashing their knuckles on the railings as there is only a couple cm of clearance.

    7. The problem here is we have two different events with opposite requirements and values. Masquerade valuing a theatrical entrance, and the Hugo Award trying to follow other award ceremonies with a front-of-stage entrance. For those of us primarily interested in the Hugos (and that includes the press), the inevitable conclusion when we see a stairs-only entry being used is that the needs of disabled people are secondary. I take your point, but any arrangement which has separate entrances for able and disabled people - and the Hugos did, even if the Masquerade didn't - is less than optimal, and if disabled winners are seen to be relegated to coming in through the tradesman's entrance, in comparison to the foregrounding of able award winners, then I leave you to imagine how it feels.

      WRT the stage and ramp, the Building Regs are quite clear, ramps are not solely for wheelchair users (I definitely prefer ramps to stairs when using crutches) and handrails are required at both sides to provide for the needs of people who are unsteady on their feet and may need support to a specific side - frankly most wheelchair users won't appreciate that need, so you need to be sure the advice you're getting matches what the regs actually say. We've already identified issues with the height and length of ramp not matching the regs. It may seem picky, but these are potential mission critical risks, the Excel, council and insurers could all have been in a position to say 'this stage does not match the requirements of Part M of the Building Regs and is not to be used'.

      "it would be hard to justify the expense"

      Not leaving disabled people feeling like second class citizens - priceless...

    8. On reflection I want to expand on the 'priceless' point to make sure my meaning comes through clearly - I do recognise that Worldcon, and all cons, operate on a limited budget and through the goodwill of volunteers, I'm advocating 'spend smarter', not 'spend more'.

    9. If a choice has to be made between a ramp that's useful to everybody but makes one event complain about how it makes them feel, and a ramp that's only useful to the Hugos, I think the decision is always going to be for the first one. The only way I can see to avoid that would be to rebuild the staging for the Hugos, which means cutting other events in that room to make time to do the rebuild.

      All constructions had to be signed off as compliant with regulations by ExCel, in planning and on site. They wouldn't let the public enter the room until this was done.

      As far as cost goes, I'm just saying that I doubt we'd ever get budget for a second one; I don't know the exact numbers offhand, but I vaguely recall them being high enough that it would be a conversation about how many programme/event items would have to be cut to pay for it.

      The calculation for conventions is always how many of other people's events must be cut entirely in order to make these things happen. There has to be a compromise between access and having a convention to access.

    10. I want to make it absolutely clear I'm not calling for two ramps, I'm calling for a common entrance, and how that is achieved is a decision for the stage designers. The ideal is clearly a single paired ramp and stairs that lets everyone enter at the same place for both events. If you choose to go with separate entry points for different points, and one of them not accessible, then, whether you think about it or not, you're electing to say that treating disabled people as equal isn't important to that event - not really a message we want associated with the Hugos.

      Just because the ramp and stage was signed off as compliant by Excel doesn't mean it was - we've established it didn't meet the Part M requirements for ramp height and stage length, and you've cast doubt on whether it met the requirement for handrails at both sides, essentially we got away with it. That's blind luck, not good planning.

      "The calculation for conventions is always how many of other people's events must be cut entirely in order to make these things happen. There has to be a compromise between access and having a convention to access."

      And once again, I'm not saying spend more, I'm saying plan better. Having a single entry point onto the stage with paired ramp and stair access would have cost less than the arrangement with ramp + two sets of stairs that was actually used. Frankly disabled people are pretty sick of cost being used as an excuse not to meet our access needs (and this is society wide, not Con or fandom specific), when as often as not costs are minimal, or entirely avoidable, if you just plan for an equally accessible environment from the start. Being told our equality has to be bought at the cost of other people's enjoyment, guaranteed not to impress.

    11. I think the access needs were met - a ramp was provided for people to get onto the stage. I didn't measure what came off the van myself, but I know the one in the plan was long enough to meet the regulations as this was specifically discussed, and any exceptions will have been signed off in the necessary manner to avoid risk to the con.

      I had a longer comment here, but it felt too much like a rant so instead I'll just say: I don't agree that your proposals are appropriate, and the plan was made by a group of people including wheelchair users experienced in stage design. If you feel that you have more experience in these matters then I suggest you join the team for future worldcons and try to design a better one.

    12. Wow! Out of all the replies here, yours are the only ones that have made me genuinely angry.

      You say the ramp met the regs, if you look up to the start of the thread you'll see WonkoTheSane saying the ramp was two 5m flights. It's impossible to meet a 4ft (1200mm) rise in two flights and be compliant with Part M as the maximum flight rise under the regs is 500mm, and a 500mm rise should be matched with a 10m flight length. Now you yourself have suggested the ramp may not have had the required handrail on both sides. That's two potential deviations from Part M identified by people involved. Now either the information reported is wrong, or the ramp wasn't compliant. It's clear from what you said that some of the 'wheelchair users experienced in stage design' are not fully aware of Part M requirements because you yourself have said one of them suggested not having a rail to both sides, even though Part M explicitly requires it. As I pointed out this is likely due to wheelchair users, however experience, not appreciating the requirements of ambulant ramp users.

      Frankly, its not for you to say whether my 'proposals are appropriate' when I'm talking about my perception of my equality. I've pointed out that there are issues whenever disabled people are forced to use separate entrances and that it would have been better (and potentially cheaper!) if common access had been provided. That's hardly controversial, but apparently you think drawing attention to it is. I may not be a stage designer, but I am familiar with the basic requirements of Part M, and from what has been discussed here there were issues, again, it isn't unreasonable for me to comment on that.

      I'm disappointed you think that's being unreasonable, but I'm absolutely not going to apologise for thinking I should have the right to come in the same door as anyone else.

  7. Oh bugger that. I just lost all of a very long comment. I'm too tired to do it again. I'll come back later. Sorry David.

    1. No problems, Tria - I always do long comments in Word or Notepad, then cut and paste!

  8. This was good to read. I'm an able-bodied person, but I'd like to make sure we do what we can for ALL of our members at next year's Worldcon in Spokane. May I link to this on the staff list there?

    1. Please do, that's a large part of why I wrote this. I was always going to do a Worldcon on Wheels report, but there were enough access issues that I realised I needed to change my focus to cover them in the hope they wouldn't happen again.

    2. David Weingart, as you know, I've rented a scooter at Worldcons for decades (recently back diagnosed as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome). Panel access for wheelies has always been an issue, as has fans not seeing people on scooters due to height. some Worldcons have done better with scooter spaces in panels and multiple disabilities such as fan needing a scooter/wheelchair space and needing to lipread, others not so much. When I was a Hugo acceptor in Denver, I was shown where the back ramp was if I should need to get to the stage

    3. OMG, another bendy, we're everywhere!

      I've been thinking more about the crowd thing and I think it may be something that needs explicit attention drawn to it in con newsletters. Worldcon had the highest ratio of mobility impaired people (both on wheels and ambulant) to non-mobility impaired I've seen outside of the Paralympics, which means the risk of walking into us if you don't look where you're going is much higher than people will be used to in their everyday lives. It's probably wise to draw their attention to that, for our safety, and their comfort, because I guarantee if I see someone about to walk into me, I'm going to try and make sure they hit the hardest, sharpest part of whichever mobility aid I happen to be using first ;)

  9. I was co-Area Head for Access at LonCon 3. I'm rather deaf myself, but otherwise able-bodied, except for a few age-related creaks. My co-Area Head uses a chair, and several members of our team have other Access issues. It's never enough, though - obviously we missed a lot of things even as we got other things right.

    Thank you for writing this post. I appreciate both the praise and the pans. Some of the latter we knew about (for instance, the podium changed location from our first discussions, and we failed to keep in communication with Events about it, so didn't discover this until Saturday afternoon, and our attempted fix was less than effective), while others we weren't aware of (for instance, the disabled toilet issues, or the locked doors, or the use of the word Mobie, evidently a North American term). And you're totally right about the wheelchair bays never being in the front. We screwed up. Future cons, Sasquan in particular, are already taking notice of these issues and the others you raised, and also of what was done well, like the registration assistance.

    As for the Pigeon Post article, which I approved for publication, I apologise particularly for that last line. It was intended to promote an example by veteran scooter users for newbie scooter users, of whom there were many at LonCon, but obviously wasn't always read that way. Given that differently abled people are too frequently asked to set a good example, I should have seen the probable reaction even if our intended meaning was read, and cut the line. I am deeply sorry.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the con, though, and delighted that the chair helped. I hope you're able to get a good one that works for you.

    1. Thanks for replying, and for taking the criticism so well. I'm very grateful for all the Access staff did do, and a lot of this is really just picky details, with a handful of more serious issues that could have spoiled people's cons - wheelchair/deaf seating in particular. The Auditorium issues point to Access being an all-areas issue, it isn't just a case of Access needing to keep in touch with Events, Events should have been actively communicating layout changes to you for comment/identification of access problems, so I don't lay that one at your feet.

      I think the particular problem with the 'set a good example' line was it implies people weren't, which is then read as them being irresponsible. And if people with mobility impairments were having as many difficulties with ambulant fans walking without looking as I was (and I know several other wheelies agreed with me) then it was never going to be read positively. It was the contrast that irritated! But thank you for acknowledging it was problematic, and I think the example should make sure nothing similar happens again. Maybe a policy of always running disability related announcements past someone with the appropriate area of disability might be a good idea?

  10. I was the one who wrote the article that appeared in Pigeon Post #7. I intended to ask the experienced scooter users to show the less-experienced how it was done; the other reading didn't occur to me until much too late. But we all know what intentions are worth, so I unreservedly apologize for my ill-considered and hurtful words. (The Newsletter team published exactly what I wrote, so any blame should accrue to me, not them.)

    1. Thanks for the apology, and I have no doubt whatsoever that it was unintentional. Hopefully we can incorporate the lessons learnt to ensure future cons don't face similar issues.

    2. Oh, indeed. In fact the head of Sasquan's Access worked with us and observed our successes and failures. In addition, we'll be making a list of Lessons Learned to send to him for easy reference.

  11. A further point just occurred to me with respect to award ceremonies and access (and anything else using a stage). I've already mentioned that at least one of this year's Hugo nominees had mentioned on Social Media having mobility issues at a Con they were attending, so it clearly isn't simply a theoretical problem, but even without that we can never guarantee that a nominee (or a presenter, or the host) won't break their leg a week before the Con (or, god forbid, at the Con) and turn up using a wheelchair. If they can't then get on stage, or can only do it through a roundabout method, then that isn't going to make the Con look good, and it's going to ruin their memories of being honoured.

    I was going to say that needs to be in contingency planning, but it's basic access, so no, ramped access to the stage needs to be in your planning from the word go.

  12. Agreed. Events and Programme were very much on board with Access support, by the way, but they and we needed to be more in touch before and during the con. That was partly a bandwidth issue - not enough people-hours to keep track of everything in detail. I hope future cons will have bigger teams.

  13. Great post. "Difficult, no; dangerous, possibly; scary, Hell Yes!" You make informative, fun. Why I'm a fan of Whizz-Kidz. Getting the right chair doesn't just make a difference, it is all the difference. But so much still needs done. London travel still shocks me how inaccessible it is.

  14. Thanks! And the scary thing is that London is far better than most of the country....

    1. FWIW, Manchester tends to be better than London for the most part. It's one of the reasons I moved here to begin with...

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  16. "I haven't just given up on going to cons, I've given up on pretty much everything but a once a week meeting with friends for coffee."

    I hope you do follow up on the right kind of chair/assistance device for you. That strikes me as a not real great quality of life (as another bendy). I've been renting scooters at Worldcon for decades (they still work for me).

    1. Thanks, I have a very active online life, the blogs here are only about half my output and I'm very active on twitter (@WTBDavidG for anyone who is interested), it's just the physical stuff that's problematic - our society isn't set up for someone who has major issues around both sitting and standing. I was considering that 45 minute registration queue last night and I'd probably have had to turn around and go home if I'd stood through it, so the chair made an immediate difference even if it wasn't remotely a perfect fit. Plotting to get an appropriate chair is in progress ;)