Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Thought Bubble Part 2: Accessibility

The previous post gave a summary of how thought bubble was supportive of different genders and age groups and gave a generally welcoming atmosphere. I thought that, in order to be complete, I should address a few of the other areas mentioned namely, accessibility for people with physical, developmental or neurological disabilities.

I have some physical disabilities and on tough days walk with as stick. I had my stick with me on the day and found accessibility for me was very good. Each of the main rooms had level access or gentle ramps to get in to them and had no steps once inside. The greeting room (where you paid, picked up your wristband, maps and program) had a number of steps at the front which surprised me a little but, I later realised (by seeing a woman zoom past me on her motorised chair) that there was also a gentle ramp up to the entrance so it was accessible to people in wheelchairs and those who can't navigate steps. This was excellent. I noted that there were actually a number of people using canes, crutches or in wheelchairs, both of the powered variety and self propelled. At no point did I see any of these people struggling to navigate the convention though I can not personally attest to how easy it was for people in chairs to reach the tables and exhibitors. The aisles were wide enough to pass down easily and without me feeling like I was an obstruction, though the sheer volume of people did mean I got jostled or my stick knocked a few times. I don't think that could really be fixed without having absolutely enormous spaces between things. I was happy to deal with the odd jostle though it might be a difficultly for other people. 

These little spaces between tables (carefully marked with an x) were great for standing out of the way.
 

I don't know if it was by design or accident but, in the New Dock Hall handy little refuges were created at the end of isles, in the corners were end tables butted up against one another. These were good places for people to stand out of the way if they needed a rest or didn't want to cause an obstruction when talking to friends. The only real complaint I would have is that there was limited seating available within the halls themselves. Though there was a small café in The New Docks, and a wonderful pop-up bar, café and lounge that offered seating, if I needed to rest or sit down when looking at the stands I would have to work my way out of the hall and then see if I could find a seat in the café. I didn't notice any readily available seating in the Armouries portion of the con, again, having to exit the hall completely and go to the Armouries café (and presumably purchase something in order to sit there) or make my way to the lounge. This might no seem like much, but if I need to sit down I need to sit down as soon as possible. The amount of energy exerted in having to exit the hall (especially if it is crowded) walk to a café or lounge and find a seat could be substantial at that point (energy depletion seems to work on a logarithmic scale). Having a seat easily available versus having to go and find a seat elsewhere could be the difference between being able to recharge and continue enjoying the event and having to rest enough that I can get home and continue resting for another day or two. If H&S and logistics allow, a little more seating within the halls would be a massive benefit for people like me with mobility, pain and fatigue issues.

Sensory overload

One of the issues I have had with cons in the past is just the volume of people and things; so much noise, bustling about, people to every side of me in a disordered mass. It can make me a little anxious. From talking to people with lower tolerance of crowds and stimulus stemming (for example due to Autism, PTSD or ADD/ADHD) this is a big issue with cons and being able to plan some sort of safe space or management is important. Thought Bubble is well designed in this respect as it is spread out over a number of venues with open space in between. You are not confined to a single building and can step outside for some fresh air with relative ease; in fact it is necessary to get from one hall to another. This definitely helps with any feelings of being hemmed in, means that there are areas for sensory stimuli, especially noise, to dissipate a little and not be so intense. However, for anybody who needs to completely get away from it their choices are a little limited. Though the wrist band system means you can come and go easily, you would have to leave the area completely to get that peace and quiet; most likely you would find yourself out doors, not great in November. There are some quiet corners and nooks, especially in the Armouries, but these lack seating and are open to the public and people who are visiting local attractions rather than con-goers. In an ideal world, Thought Bubble would be able to provide a quiet room, somewhere with soft lighting comfortable seats and minimal distraction as a haven for those who need it. How this would be managed to keep it available and quiet is a tricky piece of logistics, for who is to judge who really needs to be in those spaces and how they use them.
[edit: I have had a response from Thought Bubble and there is actually a dedicated quiet space called Bub's Lounge. I had been prior to the event that these facilities were provided but didn't see them myself at the event. Sadly that means I can't comment on what they are like but I am impressed that they were there. I could suggest that it is better signposted or advertised, but then that risks damaging it's tranquillity. I have now managed to find reference to Bub's Lounge in the Event Guide, though I'm still not sure where it was located. Something to keep an eye out for next time.]

The event guide and clear (and nicely illustrated) guide to vendors

Sight and sound

I didn't notice any facilities for people with hearing impairments however; I also didn't go to any of the panels or talks; there may have been sign interpreters present there. I don't believe I saw any signs saying that hearing loop induction systems were in place but I may have missed them; they aren't always suitable for busy crowded halls as you would find at a con. There were many visual aids around though in the form of maps, guides and signs.
Comics being a very visual medium, the convention didn't particularly cater toward people with sight problems. IS that possible? Are there formats and styles that mean that people with vision impairments can enjoy comics and how do they work? I honesty have no idea about this subject but if anybody with more knowledge in this field would like to get in touch please feel free.

More of this sort of thing!

What really made Thought Bubble feel like an accessible place for a broad range of people was the complete lack of stigma or bad attitude toward any group of people. I heard no homophobic, sexist, racist or other discriminatory language being used. Volunteers offered help and were courteous and friendly to all con goers. People were free to cosplay in any costume they wished without judgement or harassment, indeed there were some excellent examples of cross-play (males playing female characters and vis versa) without mockery or feeling the need to sex up a costume or make it a joke. I really wish I had my camera, I would have loved to ask for photographs and permission to include them on my Pinterest board.
Extra seating, quiet rooms and sign interpreters are icing on a cake. What really makes a place accessible (other than actually physically being able to access it) is the prevalent attitude that all people are welcome and all people should expect to enjoy their time without being discriminated against. That's a big deal. It's an attitude that is at the core of how the event is organised and has an impact on every aspect of the convention. It is something other event organisers (from comic conventions, to gigs, to LARP events) should keep in mind.

NB: This is all based on my own observations and experiences. Other people may have had a different experience - please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.  
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