Discon III turned out to be my worst Worldcon ever – one of my worst genre events, ever.
And I didn’t even go.
Let’s backtrack a bit.
Back in 2015, I went to the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga. Unfortunately, the convention did not provide ramps to the stages where I was on panels. This was upsetting. My tweets about it were widely shared; a couple of genre zines and io9.com shared the story. When I came home, I posted a new personal pledge on my blog stating that I would no longer attend conventions that did not have an accessibility statement and did not have ramps to the stage.
A couple of days later, Mary Robinette Kowal posted a similar pledge on her blog, without mentioning me or what had happened. Her post was shared by John Scalzi. In a few days, this was known as “Mary Robinette’s accessibility pledge.” It spread widely.
I did not feel great about this. But, I told myself, the important thing was to have accessible cons, and Mary Robinette had a much bigger platform than I did and do. I complained privately to some friends, and then moved on.
Aer Lingus broke my wheelchair while I was on my way to the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin. The (second) replacement wheelchair they provided me was too wide. Within a day, my right shoulder began to hurt; within two days I was in severe pain (and in mild pain in my ankle.) I went to Access to see if they could help me get another wheelchair or mobility scooter.
“No,” the volunteer said, indifferently.
Could they help me find a local doctor?
Also no, also indifferently.
My shoulder is better. It will never completely heal. This isn’t on that one volunteer, of course. But that interaction didn’t help.
Sometime later in Dublin, I made it over to the Exhibit Hall with a HUGE dose of Advil, and met some enthusiastic volunteers from the Worldon in DC – Discon – in 2021 group. They had heard about my wheelchair experiences and were very sympathetic. They assured me that Discon would be focused on accessibility and welcoming to members.
At this point, Discon knew that they would be using the Omni Shoreham hotel as a secondary hotel.
I listened, nodded, but privately thought I would probably not go.
And then Covid-19 hit.
I checked the website. It promised that Discon was absolutely, 100% committed to providing an inclusive, accessible experience for everyone. Exactly what volunteers had told me.
I bought my full attending membership in June 2020.
I’m not going to rehash all the difficulties Discon had in the run-up to this convention; others have already done this elsewhere.
In early July 2021, however, Mary Robinette Kowal was brought on board as the main con chair, and things started to look hopeful. Apart from being a multiple Hugo Award finalist and winner, Mary Robinette had successfully pivoted the 2020 Nebulas from a live to virtual event in crunch time to great acclaim. She’d also helped lead and organize Writing Excuses workshops for years; had attended multiple previous Worldcons; and had deep roots with the volunteer community and SFF genre writers. I agreed with the consensus that she was a great pick to lead Discon – a trusted SFF professional with the relevant experience.
That belief faced a slight setback when, in August 2021, I found out that Frameworks Workshop was holding a writer’s workshop in Iceland that, although “committed to creating a safe, inclusive, and accessible experience,” was held at a facility that was not wheelchair accessible or ADA compliant.
Mary Robinette was one of the instructors.
But, I told myself, I could at least feel reassured that with this particular workshop, Mary Robinette and the organization had taken the time to warn prospective attendees about accessibility issues at the event before any of us spent any money. Sure, it was yet another one of the myriad writing workshops held in wheelchair-inaccessible venues that I couldn’t attend.
But it was also a sign, I thought, that I could trust Mary Robinette to communicate openly with Discon members about any accessibility problems on site.
I thought we would be able to make an informed decision, at least. And, after all, Discon was still promising an inclusive, accessible convention.
I bought my airline ticket.
Time passed. Discon’s webpage and messages continued to promise an inclusive, accessible convention. I was invited to be on panels, and accepted. I noted in the computer form that I was a manual wheelchair user. Nobody commented on this or asked for further information, though I was assigned to three panels involving disability – and four that did not. American Airlines abruptly rescheduled me on a somewhat later flight, forcing me to decline my Wednesday afternoon panel. I alerted Programming, and heard nothing back until I received my revised panel with six items.
In early November, I heard that Discon had just done a walkthrough of the Omni Shoreham. “Bring your Fitibit,” joked one of the volunteers. Mildly alarmed, and thinking about my shoulder, I asked what this meant. The volunteer, Jennifer Povey, also a Discon panelist and professional writer, warned me and others that the venue was somewhat spread out and confusing. I noted again that I was concerned about my shoulder (and, also, tachycardia). Various people offered to push. I checked the website, which said:
“We are also working to ensure our facilities, which are already fully ADA compliant, are welcoming to all our members and that members have the information and resources they need to get around the facilities and find food that fits their dietary restrictions.”
Ok, I thought. I can do this.
Throughout November, I kept an eye on DC’s Covid numbers and hospitalization rates. They continued to look okay – not great, but okay. In late November I learned that one of my four live panels had been moved online, meaning that I would essentially be flying up to DC to sit in a hotel room to be on three virtual panels – but I still had three live panels, and hopes of getting to see friends that I hadn’t seen since months before the start of Covid.
Discon announced that the hotel would not be enforcing mask/vaccination rules, but that the con would. My hopes of getting my booster shot right around Thanksgiving died thanks to some necessary home repairs, but I did get my booster shot in early December. I had a bad reaction. The Saturday before Worldcon I met up with Usman Malik, a horror writer and doctor and chatted about Worldcon, and what we might do there.
I’ll do this, I said to myself Saturday. As long as my Covid test is ok and DC’s numbers don’t get worse.
That was the Saturday before Worldcon.
On the Sunday before Worldcon, Jose Iriarte, another professional writer and a personal friend, made a mildly snarky comment about the hotel map provided for Discon III members on Twitter. Mary Robinette responded to that tweet with this:
” The colors are about the ADA friendly routes through the hotel because it is split into multiple half levels. And “friendly” really means “at least possible.”
Oh, crap. I thought.
I checked the time.
The hotel’s cancellation fee would kick in one hour. It was several days past the deadline to switch from an attending to virtual membership. I would need to pay something to American Airlines if I needed to cancel/reschedule/change my flight.
I was already out several hundred dollars.
And I didn’t know what the actual situation was at the hotel. All I had was this one tweet from the con chair suggesting that I could have problems.
The rest of that day was deeply unpleasant, what with dealing with a completely different issue, trying to find out details about the Omni Shoreham from people who were there, and studying the hotel map.
I immediately saw at least one major potential problem: the chair lifts shown on the map. Chair lifts are excellent tools that help mitigate some of the accessibility issues in older buildings. I’ve frequently used them. They are also finicky, and for safety reasons will not operate if their doors are not firmly closed and latched. That is, if you are at the top of the lift, and someone left the door open at the bottom – well. You’re out of luck, unless someone is with the lift or with you.
And they are excruciatingly slow.
One chair lift was the only way wheelchair and mobility scooters could reach one wing of the hotel, the gaming area and – arguably most crucially – the parking lot. Another chair lift connected several areas that the schedule said would be used for panels.
And from the map, it looked as if wheelchair access to the restaurant and bar was not going to be great. Barcon (where everyone hangs out at the bar in the evening) is my favorite part of the convention. If I couldn’t reach it…*
On the other hands, some of my friends were already in DC, posting photos.
I sent an email to Access, noting that I had had previous wheelchair/accessibility issues at San Antonio, London, Helsinki (these were minor), and Dublin. I listed my concerns. I specifically noted that I had two issues here:
1.Discon’s choice to remain at a wheelchair-unfriendly hotel, and
2. Discon’s failure to communicate these problems/potential problems in a timely manner, which meant that attending members could not make a fully informed decision about attending on-site.
This was forwarded to Mary Robinette, who responded Monday at around noon apologizing for the lack of communication and confirming my fears about the hotel. She also thanked me, as always, for fighting for inclusion.
My emotions were a mess: paralyzed with indecision, extreme envy of friends who were mostly concerned about whether or not things would fit in their suitcases, wondering if I was overreacting, and anger. A lot of anger.
Because, see, as Mary Robinette had just stated, I’ve been fighting about accessibility concerns for more than a decade now.
It comes up in genre event after genre event: I ask if the con/workshop/insert event name here will be accessible – often in person with the conrunner. I am assured yes, yes, yes, absolutely, we get it, we don’t want to have a repeat of what’s happened to you, this is very important to us, inaccessible cons are unacceptable.
Only to arrive and find that the con is at best wheelchair unfriendly; at worst inaccessible in parts to wheelchair users.
Or alternatively, I am told in advance that although the event absolutely, positively, 100% plans to be inclusive and welcoming, they will not be paying for ramps to stages, or will remain at the location that “just has three stairs.”
Inevitably, I head to Twitter and complain, and/or write a blog post and complain, detailing every accessibility failure and just why this is a failure and a problem. I volunteer to help. People are very sympathetic and outraged and everyone agrees that this has to change. Almost no one takes my help.
And – with the rare exceptions of World Fantasy 2014 in DC and the ConFusion hotel (not the location on the hill, but the hotel) nothing changes.
Despite my shouting, prestigious SFF writing workshops continue to be held in wheelchair inaccessible locations. Genre cons continue to book event space in wheelchair unfriendly or inaccessible hotels, and continue to fail to warn attendees about the problems they may face, as in this case.
All this while the SFF community and other writer events continue to insist that they want to be welcoming and inclusive to disabled attendees. That it’s a priority for them.
At this point, I don’t feel very welcome.
I do feel exhausted.
And I am wondering just how many times I can say that ADA accessible does not mean wheelchair friendly.
I’ve talked a lot about friends here, because they were the main reason I wanted to go. (And the zoo!)
But although Worldcon is designed for and run by fans, for professional SFF writers it is also a professional event that we are strongly, strongly encouraged to attend – especially those at my level, that is, established, but unknown. It’s a networking event, a chance to get slightly better known, and possibly sell one or two books.
In this context, barriers for wheelchair users are….not great.
On Tuesday, still a mess of anger and indecision, I posted a thread on Twitter, noting that the Omni Shoreham was not wheelchair friendly, which was not great, but that Mary Robinette had apologized for the lack of communication. I noted that I was mostly angry that Worldcon had promised to be inclusive and welcoming and, well, wasn’t, and that I was also angry that Access had not sent out an email warning members about the potential problems.
Most of the reaction could be summed up as, “Again?”
One attendee, however, who described himself as just an “ordinary fan,” responded by exploring the hotel and taking pictures confirming some of the navigation issues. Mary Robinette responded to this attendee by noting that he had misunderstood the route (!) and that Worldcon was going to put up signs to help people navigate. She later posted a picture of the signs – absolutely needed to help people even find the elevator.
But interestingly, even after this Twitter thread where I noted that Access was not informing members about potential problems at the hotel, Access did not send out an email informing members about potential problems at the hotel. Granted, by Tuesday night many members were already at the hotel or on their way.
And if Access sent out an email regarding the room service issue – another problem Mary Robinette stated that she was trying to solve – well, I didn’t get it.
I wondered. How much of this was my fault? I obviously hadn’t, after all, done my due diligence on the hotel, even though by this point I really should know better than to trust what a convention’s website says.
But more to the point: I was still going to these things. Was I contributing to the problem? Enabling the problem? Convincing people that things couldn’t be that bad, since after all, I had shown up?
And how bad were things, after all?
Was it worth cancelling over this?
Wednesday morning I got an email from Access, which will be critical later. It explained that Access had checked all three of my panels and their rooms to ensure that I could get to them, and gave me a number to call if I had any problems.
One point for going.
I took an at-home Covid test. It was negative. I had no fever. I was not in a CVS episode. Several points for going.
Friends on Twitter posted several excited tweets about Worldcon. More points for going.
To a wheelchair unfriendly event.
A wheelchair unfriendly event that I had not been warned about.
An event where I would be paying the same amount of money for access as everyone else, and not getting the same experience.
By noon, I was still clutching my cell phone and looking at the Uber app. I remembered various other times I had travelled to wheelchair unfriendly/essentially inaccessible places and still had a good time.
I remembered crying at all four previous Worldcons I’d attended.
I decided not to go.
And promptly had a meltdown/complete emotional crash.
Worldcon, of course, wasn’t hurt by this decision. Nor was the hotel.
The main person hurt by this? Me.
A few hours later, a friend urged me to contact American Airlines and see if I could change my mind again since I was this upset. After hearing the story, the American Airlines representative was very sympathetic and helpful, and did remove the usual cancellation/reservation charge. But I still had to pay the difference in the prices for the new flights, and there was a very real question of managing to get another return flight to Orlando. I checked with Amtrak – 18 hours each way, for about $278.
Which was to say, if I changed my mind again, I would have to spend still more money.
My virtual panel that evening was about disability. I realized I was not emotionally up to it and contacted my fellow panelists to cancel. I felt more and more miserable. I told myself I would fly up or take the train up on Thursday. I mean, Mary Robinette had told me that it wasn’t that bad in her second email and I had survived wheelchair unfriendly places before and –
Late Wednesday David Levine contacted me, and told me that I had made the correct choice not to come. The hotel, he said, was definitely difficult to navigate, and he had spoken to another disabled attendee who had major issues with one of the elevators.
I felt a bit better.
But the fundamental problem remained: I was at home, not having fun, while lots of my friends were at Worldcon, having fun.
I wallowed in a lot of self-pity.
One of the main questions asked by my exhausted friends who are not SFF writers is why do I even continue to bother with these cons, given all this? It’s a fair question.
The answer has a lot to do with Fear of Missing Out, and also that, mingled with all the terrible stuff has been a lot of good stuff. I meet amazing people at these events. I have amazing conversations. I get to see friends and different places. I collect more travel stories. Sometimes I almost feel included. Every once in a while a con is even accessible, raising my hopes that it will be better next time.
As one perceptive friend noted, at this point, I’m basically in a dysfunctional relationship with SFF cons. Maybe even SFF.
My suitcase was still packed on Thursday. I still had the possibilities of heading to the airport and trying to get another flight, or taking Amtrak. More money, but at least I could see my friends and feel less left out.
At 12:15, Programming sent me and other panelists an email with the subject heading “Discon III – Calvert Room panels set.” The major excerpts:
“I need to extend an update and an apology regarding panels you are scheduled for in the Calvert room this weekend. While most of this room’s scheduled activity is for discussion panels, the room set (including fire marshal access) does not allow us to set a head table for this room, or more than a single microphone.
This was a wholly unintended oversight with accessibility and presentation consequences. I take sole responsibility as head of program scheduling for any and all issues this poses. At the same time, cancelling every panel in this room for the weekend is equally unfair to you and to the attendees who came to hear you speak. Those of you who are willing to speak, please be willing to pass the microphone in the room between you and be mindful of audience need to hear you clearly.
[contact info and additional apologies omitted]
“…. am hopeful that most of you will be willing and able to continue on your panels, and provide the DisCon III experience that our attending members expect.”
That is, Discon III had put me on an inaccessible panel, and given me about five hours of warning. Just a little over 24 hours after Access had assured me that my panels were accessible.
And I was still expected to provide the experience that attending members expected.
This is where I point out that while Worldcons do occasionally end up refunding part or all of the membership fees for panelists and volunteers, this has never happened to me.
I had paid for an attending membership. I certainly wasn’t getting the experience I had expected.
I told Twitter that I would not be at my panel scheduled for that room, The CW’s Influence on Genre TV panel, retweeting the relevant parts of the email on Twitter; emailed my fellow panelists to tell them that I would not be attending any further panelists; apologized to a couple of Nancy Drew fans who had expected me to discuss the show; and emailed Programming and Access giving my summary of the situation and letting them know I was not happy. I got an response from Farah Mendlesohn, who was not on site and could not clarify the situation. Once again several people retweeted me. A wheelchair user who was on site told me she was having a terrible time. Separately, other disabled attendees, including Seanan McGuire, started tweeting about the elevator and other accessibility issues.
Mary Robinette responded to some – not all – of the people who had retweeted my tweets about the panel in the Calvert room. She told us that this was a misreading/misunderstanding. The accessibility issue had nothing to do with wheelchairs – the room itself was on the main floor and I could roll into it. It was merely a question of the mic, needed for captioning persons. Panelists would need to pass the mic around. The accessibility issue in question was just about needing to provide captioning to users.
These tweets, of course, failed to address the second major issue here – Programming wanting me to provide the experience Worldcon was denying me. They also ignored the rather glaring issue of passing a single microphone around during a pandemic and at a convention where attendees were asked to maintain social distancing. A few Deaf attendees and others with hearing problems noted that the setup as described presented accessibility issues for them And people with experience with AV equipment read all of these tweets and said WHAT?
But for me, the biggest problem was that these tweets essentially accused me (and programming) not just of getting it wrong, but of over-dramatizing and exaggerating the situation. They implied, too, that I was so wrapped up in my own wheelchair focus that I was ignoring the needs of Deaf attendees and those with hearing problems, and unwilling to provide accessibility to others. They implied that I was somehow unaware that there are many types of accessibility.
This was not a great feeling. But in the interests of trying to get the facts straight, I did retweet some of Mary Robinette’s tweets – while pointing out again that this did not address the glaring issue of everything else that Programming said in their email. A few people attacked me for posting without checking all the facts.
Friday morning I heard from one of fellow panelists. Mary Robinette, not me, and not Programming, had misunderstood.
The panel setup in question was a microphone attached to a podium. Panelists were taking turns coming up to the podium. They did not have a microphone that could be passed around. I would have had difficulties getting to the panelist area (this was confirmed by multiple witnesses) and the setup was not accessible to me.
I tweeted about this, too. This time, Mary Robinette did not respond, though she left her original tweets up. And naturally, my tweets confirming that the setup was inaccessible got fewer retweets than the original exchange and Mary Robinette’s “you’re wrong” responses.
I expect people were just exhausted about the whole thing. I can’t blame them. I feel the same way.
As I noted in my third email to Mary Robinette and other Worldcon heads:
“Leaving aside the impact that these responses had to my general and professional reputation, this sort of response reinforces a very real problem faced by disabled people on a regular basis: being accused of exaggerating or misunderstanding a situation. This total focus on insisting that no, the panel WAS accessible – again, making me out to be the person in the wrong here – also failed to address the very serious concern I had regarding the statement from Programming stating that despite this, Programming hoped I would provide the DisCon III experience that our attending members expect.”
As of this writing, I have not received a response to this email.
Worldcon and its members can and have responded to previous concerns. When The Wheel of Time series was nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel, for instance, the members created a new Hugo category for Best Series, to eliminate the inherent issues with comparing a lengthy series to a single novel. When the Sad and Rabid Puppies attempted to take over the Hugos, the members resisted – and won. When the Helsinki Worldcon attracted far more attendees than expected, Helsinki managed – sort of – to get more event space in the middle of the convention, and did the until then unthinkable step of locking down new memberships. Con New Zealand pivoted to a virtual convention during Covid-19.
This year, I heard extensive praise for much of the virtual programming, especially the tracks that worked to bring in an international perspective – something many Worldcons have had issues with in the past.
So Worldcon can and has changed.
Just not, I guess, the habit of frequently just paying lip service to accessibility.
I heard several complaints through Twitter and private messages about accessibility problems at the convention, saying that I’d made the right decision not to come. An able bodied friend, Juan, who was already volunteering at the con, paused his other convention activities to help out with the ADA elevator situation.
And I heard that one room – apparently the Empire Ballroom – had an elevated stage without ramp access. The exact thing that I had been promised at Dublin would not be happen.
Maybe, I thought, I had made the right decision.
And yet. Even after trying to mute the tag, I read tweet after tweet of people saying that they were having a wonderful marvelous time at Worldcon. How amazing it was to meet and hang out with people. How great so many of the live panels were. How helpful the book vendors were. How amazing it was to find a specific comic. How fun the Stroll and Sips with the Stars events were. Lots of pictures of people with gorillas and birds and other animals at the zoo.
I was at home.
I did go to my town’s small, hideously tacky Xmas golf cart parade, hung out with some complete strangers, and got rained on.
I am aware, of course, that running any Worldcon – even a brilliantly successful one – is largely a thankless job; there’s a reason people wait years before doing that again, if they ever do. I’m also aware that the current Discon conrunners and program heads inherited what could be kindly called a clusterfuck. And that like me, the volunteers are also volunteers who might get a T-shirt and their membership partly refunded, or might not. And more than aware that the entire planet is pretty frazzled right now.
And for once, so far I’ve only heard good things about the panels, both on site and virtual, which is certainly a change from previous Worldcons, and a credit to Programming and to the panelists.
And fully aware that all of this stuff – especially the back and forth disagreements about the microphones – probably sounds extremely petty to some people. Presumably including Discon volunteers.
I still wish Discon had taken the time to talk to me earlier.
* As it turned out, in the Covid, understaffed world, Barcon ended up turning into Lobbycon – a place I could have reached. No one knew this until Wednesday evening.