By Janelle Eckardt
August 15, 2009 (San Diego)--A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. Oh, wait, wrong introduction. Sorry. Not so long ago in a lovely convention center downtown, thousands of people flocked from all corners of the globe to revel in the Mecca of pop culture that is Comic-Con International.
The largest convention of its kind may also be the most accessible to attendees with disabilities and extrasensory powers alike.
Comic-Con boasts unmatched accessibility accommodations and a seemingly disproportionate percentage of attendees with disabilities. It has been suggested that folk of the less-than-abled persuasion have a special bond with superheroes and fantasy fiction. But which came first, the fans or the accessibility?
I have attended Comic-Con loyally for over thirteen years, and have watched it expand into every last inch of our beautiful San Diego Convention Center’s 615,701 square feet of exhibit space. As the crowds increase in exponential numbers each year, so does the quality of programming and services offered to visitors. In particular for many attendees with disabilities, Comic-Con has gained the proud reputation for pushing the envelope in the way of offering a comprehensive range of accommodations.
The Disability Services (DS) department is in place to answer questions and ensure that all attendees with particular needs may get the most of the Comic-Con experience. Professional sign language interpreters are provided at the convention’s larger entertainment panel discussions and presentations; front-of-the-line privileges are awarded to handicapped visitors (including restroom lines); and registration for one personal attendant is complimentary with the purchase of your ticket.
Other helpful accommodations include 1) a rest area for the disabled, elderly, expecting mothers, and families with small children; 2) an enclosed nursing area; 3) cold storage for medications; 4) wheelchairs and scooters on loan on a first-come, first-served basis; 5) and limited reserved seating for programming events. Another extremely thoughtful and rather brilliant service offered is that DS staff members facilitate the registration process by sending “runners” upstairs to claim attendee badges for disabled visitors so they may avoid the colossal lines. With daily convention registration capping off consistently at 125,000 visitors, one truly appreciates the work these runners do.
When you consider just how many faces pass through the convention during its four-and-a-half day life, you might assume it’d be almost impossible to run into anyone you know. Amazingly though, in this sea of masked and unmasked characters it is quite impossible not to run into friendly faces – sometimes literally so. DS is the first stop for many attendees, and quickly becomes the watering hole for the weekend. It can be an odd and wonderful feeling to catch up with friends you may only see once a year, but who make you feel as though not a day has passed since your last meeting.
The staff of volunteers is just as excited to be there as the attendees, if not more so, and maintains an inspiring degree of enthusiasm throughout the weekend. In this “have your people call my people” world, these hard working folk may make the difference between being in-the-know about that “surprise” celebrity appearance just in time to snatch an autograph, and hearing about it from the glassy-eyed 10-year-old sitting next to you on the trolley that night. After spending a single day acquainting oneself with the convention’s truly thoughtful staff and equally considerate services, the prospect of returning next year becomes a possibility to look forward to.
After years of taking for granted the large numbers of wheelchairs, walkers, walking sticks, and lightsabers surrounding me in the exhibit hall and conference rooms of the convention, I was a bit surprised by a question posed to me this year by Los Angeles Times Reporter John Horn. Mr. Horn caught my sister and me during a brief pause from the crowds, and inquired about our experiences with the convention and our interest in comic culture. There is a dear place in my heart for the blood-bathed antihero and the wickedly perverse villain, and both just happen to thrive under the Comic-Con umbrella. Mr. Horn was specifically interested in our take on his theory that many people with disabilities are attracted to comics because they often deal with themes of otherness – from the ostracized X-Men mutants to Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s blindness, super heroes and their arch enemies must often combat crippling odds to survive in an unforgiving world.
In his article, “Comic-Con: Empowering for patrons with disabilities,” Horn explores the notion that comic books, video games, and fantasy fiction explore themes familiar to many in the disabled community, and provide fans with the opportunity to escape their own realities and explore the world through a new set of eyes, or through the trademark Cyclops synthetic ruby-quartz visor in some cases. Horn notes, “Several convention visitors and activists and authors in the disabled community say there can be a special bond between the disabled and fantasy figures, even if the make-believe characters don't have a disability.”
The president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, Andrew Imparato, contributed to the discussion: "There are a lot of disabled people who just want to be who they are and not have to change themselves to fit into society… Every superhero movie I see, I see some sort of larger disability story. They are trying to fit in, and trying to tell people who they are -- what it means to be human.” As Mr. Imparato points out, superhero stories do translate into broader social and cultural contexts. In fact, many minority groups may identify with the very same concepts relevant to disability issues. And while I have no doubt comics and other popular genres are especially pertinent to many handicapped fans, I wonder if Comic-Con’s high disabled demographic is due to a particularly avid fan base or the fact we can get in the door?
Mr. Horn poses very interesting and relevant questions in his article, and I’m intrigued by his theory. Every minority group in this country is influenced by, and influences the larger cultural fabric of expression – literature, film, and videogames explore many issues that are otherwise ignored in our “official” dialogue. And I am glad characters like the X-Men’s Professor Xavier exist to offer a different reference point for courage, strength, and power.
It is dangerous, however, for any casual observer to equate the noticeably high percentage of convention attendees with disabilities with a peculiar appreciation on their part for alternative realities. It would better serve everyone if we began to recognize that any establishment that boasts quality accessibility accommodations will enjoy an increase in patrons with disabilities. First-time attendees will note whether or not they could navigate the convention easily and enjoyably, and will decide for themselves if it’s worth attending next year. For myself, I look forward to being a part of the next round of pop culture chaos, in 2010.
http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-heroes25-2009jul25,0,584... – Comic-Con: Empowering for patrons with disabilities, by John Horn
Janelle graduated from UCSD with a BA degree in English literature, in 2007. After gaining a spot in a competitive 12-week internship, she was hired as a writer and editor for a popular national restaurant review and concierge company. Hazards of the job include public displays of salivation over the countless mouth-watering dishes she is forced to describe, and the occasional threat of death-by-overeating. Janelle is a native of this most beautiful of counties, and is absolutely bent on showing it off to the world: bumpy sidewalks and all. And if she knows anything, it is this: bucket lists are for procrastinators–live as though you are … living.