BITS & PIECES
An irregularly updated blog for stories, thoughts, and context
Nearly two months later, but still an important topic! Let's talk about accessibility at Twitch Con. This is a long article, so feel free to skip around. Here's an overview of the full piece:
1. Accessibility and Inclusivity
First, let's start with a brief overview of accessibility and inclusivity as they relate to gaming conventions. Inclusivity is the idea that people from all backgrounds are equally, fairly represented in all facets of the con, from speakers and staff to attendees and vendors. Accessibility involves the specific logistics of making sure the panels, spaces, and opportunities are open to people with disabilities. You can invite a person with a disability to speak at a panel, but if the panel requires standing, or is in a remote location, or has overly harsh lights, then it may not be accessible to the speaker.
In everyday life, accommodations can be tailored to the individual. If you're watching Netflix with a friend who is hard of hearing, you can turn the volume up past your preferred volume to a useful volume for your friend. This doesn't work for large-scale events like Twitch Con because different people can have competing or contradictory needs. One person may have vision issues that require bright lighting; another person might have sensory issues processing overly harsh lighting. The goal is to find a reasonable medium to accommodate the greatest number of people, with alternatives to accommodate people whose needs fall outside the provided range. This requires taking each need seriously. No one should be expected to put up with substandard or painful accommodations because their needs are perceived as less valid or their problems perceived as easier to ignore.
So, that brings us to the specifics of Twitch Con. This isn't a callout post or a witch hunt. This is a call to do better, because the reality is that many attendees with disabilities were disappointed, hurt, marginalized, or excluded because of the insufficient accommodations at Twitch Con.
2. Staff Support
Before I start talking about Twitch Con, I want to talk about A-Camp, a queer-friendly, queer-only camp I attended this past spring. When I registered for A-Camp, the form asked if I had any accessibility concerns. The designated Accessibility Maven (the incomparable Carrie!) emailed me to discuss specific concerns. At camp, we communicated through text multiple times a day about accessibility needs (e.g. 'I don't need the accessible shuttle to dinner tonight; I'm going to lie down instead'). One day, the temperature dropped below freezing, posing a health hazard for my breathing and joints in the unheated cabins. Carrie arranged alternative sleeping arrangements within an hour.
Compare that to Twitch Con 2017, where there was no accessibility-specific email address; only a general information one. Once the con started, that email address was unmonitored and automatically answered every email with a form response. There was no point of contact for disabled attendees who had questions about the most basic forms of accessibility, such as 'Where should I get dropped off to be closest to the wheelchair rental?'
I'm not saying that I expect Twitch Con's accessibility coordinator to become my new best friend. But what I am saying is that there needs to be an accessibility coordinator, or a whole team, available both on-site and through email for the duration of the con. They need raw knowledge of the layout, schedule, and policies, combined with compassion for disabilities and authority to overrule existing policies (e.g. 'I'm escorting this small group through the back; don't worry, they're with me'). Additionally, the accessibility staff should have unilateral authority to remove anyone who harasses or interferes with a disabled person's enjoyment of the con. This can take the form of distracting service animals, touching a mobility device without permission, mocking ASL users with fake signs, and more.
Creating a separate team that only handles accessibility concerns will ultimately make things smoother for all involved. Attendees have a reliable, capable point of contact. The general con staff won't need to learn all accessibility-related information; only the contact info for the people who do.
Let's say the accessibility team wears white Twitch Con shirts. The authority comes from the shirts; other staff members will understand that whatever the white shirts are doing is valid and necessary. The idea is that people with accessibility concerns don't have to go around the con all weekend constantly explaining themselves or proving their disabilities, adding another burden to attendance.
But going back to the most basic level of accessibility: if you can't find the accessibility contact or information at Twitch Con, functionally, that means there is no accessibility support at Twitch Con.
3. Information and Signage
Twitch Con suffered from a lack of accurate, up-to-date information and visible signs. At Twitch Con 2017, both disabled and able-bodied attendees complained that staff seemed to know less than the visitors. These issues are annoying to anyone, but let's talk about how the lack of organization impacts people with accessibility concerns.
People with mobility issues often can't wander the venue aimlessly until they happen to find someone or something that directs them where to go. Other people have strict schedules based on medication or treatment, or a limited amount of time they can handle navigating crowded public spaces (whether that's based on anxiety, limited lung capacity, or a thousand other reasons). For these people, having updated, accurate information is critically important to planning out their con time and attending the sessions they really want to see. Also, everyone else benefits from reliable information and signs, too (you'll often find that increasing accessibility has the side effect of making things more enjoyable for everyone).
"It was hard to tell what room was on what floor, so it was a lot of guess work. Hard enough when you can run up and down flights of stairs, but a lot worse when you have to use the freight elevator back behind the scenes," said Noelle, a Twitch Con attendee who shared her experiences with renting and using a wheelchair at the event.
One solution is assigning a staff member (or three) who serves as the point of contact for scheduling concerns and updates the Twitch Con app with the latest information. While the app was updated several times towards the start of the con, notifications all but stopped by the last day. Many attendees complained that they missed all or part of sessions that were rescheduled or moved without notice.
Another solution is creating a separate handbook that contains far more information than the app or the con booklet. This handbook would be available for download in advance and include...
4. Wheelchairs, Stairs, and Distance
Accessibility is legally regulated to a certain extent. However, meeting the bare minimum requirements for accessibility doesn't mean that your event is actually accessible--or enjoyable.
I spoke to Noelle, a Twitch Con attendee, about her experiences renting a wheelchair: "We were near one of the lines to get in after I got my badge, and were directed around to the back of the building. We walked for about a mile around the building until we got to a staff-only area. There, we were informed that we'd missed security, which was where they'd be able to get us a wheelchair. There was no easy way to tell it was security, it was simply a door labeled 'Employees Only'. We waited for half an hour once we found them to get a wheelchair." During the con, the elevators in the general access areas broke down. People who needed an elevator had to use the freight elevator instead.
Stories like this are absurd, but unfortunately not uncommon. And yes, some of the factors, such as the elevator breakdown and the wheelchair rental location, are beyond Twitch Con's control. However, Twitch Con can mitigate those issues. Detailed information on wheelchair rentals could easily be included in the con handbook I suggested. Reliable notifications would help attendees work around the elevator breakdown.
This also illustrates a larger point: if you don't have the underlying structure to handle updates and emergencies, then the inevitable last-minute changes will become bigger issues than they need to be.
5. Lights, Sounds, and Crowds
As I mentioned in the introduction, variations in light and sound can be exclusionary to people with different health conditions. The size of the crowds can also be a concern. I've been to several cons and even worked a few. Even with my previous experience, I was not prepared for how dark the theaters and main expo hall were at Twitch Con. At one point, I was walking across the floor with a friend who expressed concerns about falling, and this was not a person who would identify herself as disabled.
Imagine yourself sitting in your living room, watching TV and talking with a friend. This is your baseline. Anything that strongly deviates from this baseline should be noted in advance. For example, the con guide could use a blacked-out lightbulb icon next to spaces that are far darker than normal, or use a speaker icon to indicate extremely loud areas. Knowing this information beforehand can help people prepare for those situations--or avoid them. Also, during the planning stage, if you notice that most of your events are loud, dark, crowded, cold, or atypical environments, you may want to reconsider some of your plans.
For people who struggle with crowds, noise, heat, light, or any form of sensory overload, it would be helpful to have a conference room reserved solely for relaxation. Set up about a third of the room with chairs for people to sit and relax. Turn on half the lights, and ask people to keep conversations low. You could even throw some yoga mats on the floor in one area to let people stretch out tense muscles. Several cons are moving to include rest and relaxation areas, so it would be great if Twitch Con also jumped on the trend.
Twitch Con was spread out across several spaces in the convention center. The main expo hall was in the center. On one side was the Partner Lounge, an open space, and the H1Z1 Theater. On the other, escalators led to panel locations and the pop-up store, and another set of escalators led to more panel rooms upstairs.
Now, there was nothing inherently wrong with the layout of Twitch Con. But certain issues made the layout problematic for attendees. For example, on Saturday morning, visitors were let into the main plaza area long before the panels started. However, the main expo floor was not opened until noon—the same time the panels started. It took several minutes for able-bodied people to hurry across the expanse, and for many with mobility issues, it took even longer. Tons of attendees complained about missing the first part of the Saturday panels because of the illogical timing. The lack of planning also impacted the panels: since people were arriving at different times, there was a frequent, distracting, avoidable flow of attendees into the first session.
In the expo hall itself, none of the booths were marked in the convention booklet. The only way to find a sponsor or vendor was to wander until you saw a sign. Besides the difficult navigation for visitors, some vendors also complained that they were given booth numbers that meant nothing since attendees were not given a corresponding map. More information about booth locations would benefit everyone: visitors could plan their trip around their favorite booths, while vendors and sponsors could better promote themselves.
The narrowness of the vendor aisles was also an issue for many people. It was difficult to navigate the tight spaces and high counters even without accessibility concerns. A solution for next year? Double the size of the aisles and reduce empty, wasted space. The main goal of a vendor corner is not to have a bustling, busy space that looks good, but a functional space that allows people to buy from their favorite vendors. One other suggestion: a binder with examples of all available merch. One artist had such a binder at the convention, and I thought it was an amazing idea. The binders make the art accessible to people who may struggle to see images posted on the walls or laid on a high counter. The binders also separate the actions of choosing merch and buying merch, streamlining the process and reducing congestion at the point-of-sale.
On a layout micro level, let's talk about the layout inside the panel rooms. There was a raised platform at the front of each room with a table for the speakers. Chairs were set up in four main sections, separated by a walking path horizontally and vertically. At first, the microphones to ask questions were in the middle of the center row. These were later moved to both sides of the chairs. Unfortunately, that was also where people using wheelchairs, motorized scooters, or other mobility devices tended to sit. Some struggled to maneuver over the cables lying on the floor. Occasionally, the line to ask questions would wrap around people sitting on the side, as though they were in the way.
One possible solution? Remove a small square of chairs from both the front and back chair clusters closest to the door. This literally carves out a space for people with mobility devices and puts them solidly within the community instead of feeling left on the outside. It also means that you could put cable protectors specifically where you expect mobility devices to be, increasing human safety while reducing potential damage to the cables.
The biggest general complaint was the wait time to get into the afterparty at Queen Mary's Dark Harbor. Some people waited for nearly two hours in line, with no places to sit or take a break. The line was poorly lit and spread out over several parts of the parking lot, a bumpy, uneven terrain that posed a serious risk. Inside the event, the ground was much worse: the area was sloped and combined grass, dirt, and pavement in a foggy, dimly lit atmosphere with extremely limited seating.
One of the Dark Harbor haunted mazes had a theme of schizophrenia. That's it; schizophrenia. As you can tell from my name and my blog, I am schizophrenic. It is blatant hypocrisy to throw money at people who profit from mental illness stereotypes, then turn around and host panels on supporting those with mental illness. Twitch Con can't have it both ways.
Most of the logistical and accessibility issues at Dark Harbor were the responsibility of the Queen Mary. However, the Queen Mary website clearly stated the lack of disability accommodations and promoted their schizophrenia-themed maze. It is Twitch Con's responsibility to decide whether a non-accessible location is appropriate for a convention that claims to be inclusive. Twitch Con either did not research the location properly, or Twitch Con knew these issues and intentionally chose to exclude many attendees from the afterparty. In this situation, there is no mitigating the fact that the event openly prohibited many from attending, and was not enjoyable for the hundreds who did show up.
Twitch Con's location seems to change each year, so it is likely there will be an opportunity to change the afterparty location next year. Hopefully, Twitch Con will look at potential locations more critically, and with consideration for all attendees.
By outlining these issues, I hope to give Twitch Con specific information on how to improve the experience for next year. I also hope that this article can be useful to anyone who is interested in improving the inclusivity and accessibility of their gaming cons, geek events, or any large gatherings. Keep in mind that this is not the end of the conversation or the whole conversation; this article is simply one step along the path to making a better, geekier world.
Have any questions, suggestions, or comments? Find me on Twitter or send me an email.