The Con Job

So many might remember back when I went to Phoenix ComiCon 2013, saw people, did things, and had a very fun and geeky time. Well, I have a bit more to say on that unfortunately. Why unfortunately? Well while I had fun, it was with no help from the convention itself. The guests were awesome and I enjoyed what I saw. Still just trying to navigate the location was hectic. In the end, I left the convention somewhat regretting that I even bothered. You could leave out the part with the emergency evacuation and I’d still say it was a nightmare.

I’ve been going to conventions all my life since around the age of five or six as my parents usually ran some aspect of the event. Sometimes I’d help and others, it would be an excuse to run around and meet people, play games, and watch anime. A lot of the time I got to do both working as security and sometimes running the accessibility or “disabled” services. I’d roam the grounds, making sure weapons where peace bonded, conflicts were resolved peacefully, and naked people stayed out of the pool. As part of the disability services, most of my work was pre-con, ensuring seating could accommodate wheelchairs, there was accessible paths to panels, and working to offer any help to those who needed it. With that said, it’s safe to assume I’ve had a lot of experience as an attendee and a volunteer at conventions. So why was PCC such a bad time?

In even the most dull moments at a con, I can manage and create my own fun. This also holds true in the most wheelchair unfriendly locations. If there is a will, or a whip, there is a way. Yet, the biggest convention in Arizona and there was little that went right that weekend. The staff for the convention and the convention center were abysmal. So as a result I started to write them a letter. At this point I’ve sent said letter to the city manager, the city’s equal opportunity department, a number of ComiCon head staff, and the Phoenix Convention Center. The letter reads:

To whom it may concern,

My name is Sean Martin; I am disabled and must use a thirty-three inch wide manual wheelchair. I recently attended the Phoenix ComiCon 2013 at the Phoenix Convention Center. I am writing to bring to your attention the severe problems with handicapped access I encountered there.

I initially arrivedon Thursdayevening of the convention to pick up my badge and attend a panel later that night. Unfortunately I was unable to do either. I had great difficulty even entering the building, as the doors were not wide enough to accommodate my chair. I spoke with a member of the convention center security staff who directed me to another staffer who sent me to yet a third who knew the location of door that was supposed to accommodate a wheelchair. It did not. No one on duty outside the center knew where to find a door that was wide enough for a wheelchair; even the automatic doors that were designated for handicap access were not actually accessible. The only option was to forcefully push my chair through the doorway, scrapping the sides of the chair and putting unneeded strain on my companion operating the chair. In total, it took us nearly three hours just to get inside to find out that registration was already closed.

Once I finally managed to get inside, I noticed that what made the doorway so small was a bar between the set of double doors that could be unlocked and removed. I pointed this out to still another security member who directed me to the Security’s Operations room. A woman, identified only as Mary, was working the operations window. I informed her of my issue and she got the building manager involved over the phone. My suggestion to fix the issue by removing the bar between the doors was refused and I was directed to the one set of double doors that were wheelchair accessible.

I dealt with this inconvenience throughout the convention and used the doors as I could, enjoying the acceptably wide interior doors while suffering the nearly inaccessible exterior ones. However, an emergencySundayafternoon of the convention turned inconvenience into something far more sinister and frightening. The fire alarms rang, and the center was ordered evacuated, but none of the normal exit routes were available to me. After a good fifteen minutes seeking one of the security personnel, I was finally directed through to the loading docks. Yet, while I was able to be evacuated through the loading docks, it was not through the efforts and due diligence of security personnel, but thanks to the kindness of a fellow attendee who assisted me and my companion up the steep slope of the dock entrance. Had I tried to exit on the main floor I would have had to travel all around the building to the one door that fit my chair. The only other option would have been to struggle to use one of the other artificially narrowed doors, thereby causing a backup in the evacuation and creating a risk for myself and for others.

I can’t help but feel lucky that I was at the bottom floor and I am concerned about what could have happened had I been anywhere else in the convention center. I would love to see more accessibility and consideration for those with special needs attending future events so such frustration and risk is avoided in the future. Without the kindness of a stranger and being in a fortunate location, I would not have been able to be evacuated during the emergency.

With these events in mind, I would have taken a far different approach to the accessibility of the convention. To start, I would have made sure that all doors were fully accessible and not just for small strollers. With the staff trying to clear everyone out of the building between panels and events, the exits became very crowded and hardly accessible for the average attendees. Next, I would make the accessibility desk more accessible and more obvious. We didn’t even know there was one until Sunday when someone came up to me to give me an accessibility badgeand that was the only time I saw that desk manned.When registration was asked earlier in the convention about accessibility services, we were told they had no clue if there even was an accessibility services.Finally, when waiting to have photos taken for the photo ops, the staff pulled all the wheelchairs aside and let them go first before the line. I would keep that. While according to your mobility policy on the website, this service would not be provided. Yet it seemed to me that this method kept everything running smoothly and made sure everyone got their pictures.

Speaking of your mobility policy,which has been listed ascontaining problematic and hostile language toward people with disabilities here http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Cons_with_Accessibility_Policies, your first section practically contradicts everything you say that you offer for people with disabilities. In the end, what really needs to happen is that you make sure all your staff is informed and prepared. People in wheelchairs can be geeks and nerds and even some of the biggest fans. So to lock them out of the largest geeky event in the state is near insanity.I wanttobring this to your attention to make sure steps are taken to prevent anyone else from suffering the struggle and worry that I experienced at Phoenix ComiCon.My view of ComiCon is as an inclusive event, available to all who come to its doors in search of others like-minded, not exclusive of those who may need more accommodation than others.

Thank you for your time,

Sean Martin

So that’s it. A sum of the frustration at Phoenix ComiCon. Now don’t get me wrong, I love PCC but when everything is so backwards, something must be done. Now, it isn’t just PCC’s fault. The convention center is also to blame as they were the ones to refuse removing the bar in the door and when given a simple solution, they decided to show me the one exterior door in the whole building that was truly wheelchair accessible. So not only did they blatantly disregard the issue and the solution, but they were insulting by making it sound like they were going to resolve the issue, but show me something that I clearly was not asking for. So how is it that the tiny local conventions can reasonably accommodate far beyond such a large event and venue?

Even after months, I’m still baffled by what happened and how it was handled. I’m still a little scared by all the problems that occurred during the evacuation. I still wonder how could someone be so ill prepared in such a large public building. It’s things like this that leave me confused as to how can accessibility be so difficult. I’m sure wheelchairs and those in need of any kind of reasonable accommodation didn’t just appear in the late 80’s. America has a law to help those people who need it, people who may be a little odd or unusual. Yet they are still people. Maybe I’m just crazy but I can’t wrap my head around how equality is so hard. If I can find ways to work with disabilities, then why can’t we work with those of a different race, color, gender, or belief? There are too many questions with not enough answers. So what do you think? Is it really that hard? Why are we globally incapable of working with each other, accommodating for our shortcomings and unifying to become something more?

One Comment

  • Liz Stubbs

    August 18, 2013 at 2:34 am

    I don’t think that we’re necessarily incapable, or even unwilling, to work with each other. I think it’s an issue of apathy. Few people vote- which is inexcusable, for women and African Americans especially, as we were only recently afforded that right). Even fewer write legislatures, agencies, etc. I think a lot of people are of the, “It doesn’t affect me, so f@#$ it” mentality. I think it’s way cool that you took the time to draft and send a letter on an obviously important issue!

    -Liz

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