An open letter to the Australian SF community

On Sunday night the Australian National Science Fiction convention held the annual Ditmar Award ceremony. In almost every way, the committee put on a fine awards ceremony during a really good convention.

However, the venue staging was awful, in terms of its accessibility. High, and only accessible by temporary stairs, the stage was off-limits to anyone in a wheelchair, anyone in an electric scooter and anyone with a significant mobility impairment. This included one recipient in a mobility scooter who – ironically – won an award celebrating how much she’d given to the local community through her participation over decades.

This should not be acceptable to us as a community in the twenty-first century.

People with a disability should have the same opportunities to participate on-stage as everyone else. I’ve seen it several times in the last few years, so it’s not a problem confined to Western Australia. Far from it. These sort of things are primarily controlled by the venue, not the convention committee, and can’t be fixed unless addressed a long way out. That’s why we need to talk about it as a community now.

We wouldn’t for a second tolerate a sign saying: “No red-heads or women allowed on stage” and we shouldn’t tolerate staging that says exactly same thing to people with a disability.

Ultimately, it’s sensible on many levels. Proper access for people with a disability is also better access for older members of our community who also face mobility challenges too.

I raised the issue with Damien Warman and Dave Cake after the ceremony, both of whom are on a sub-committee that helps run the awards process. They understood my concerns and gave a commitment to undertake steps to help address the issue. But ultimately they can’t fix it. They can’t force a convention committee to do it, and they shouldn’t have to. We should insist upon it as a community.

If it means staging the awards differently – we should do that.

If it means committees asking someone with a disability to walk the space with them before setup – we should do that.

If it means tougher negotiations with hotels – we should do that.

If it means everyone pays $5 extra on their membership to allow for improved staging – we should do that.

These things are important to us as a community, and we should fix them.

  24 comments for “An open letter to the Australian SF community

  1. Kirstyn McDermott
    April 28, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Great post, Rob. I know when Continuum was at the Victoria Hotel (which had split level convention space separated by steps), we were assured prior to the convention that the hotel possessed and would provide an accessibility ramp for those in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues.

    The first morning of the Con, while we were setting up, we asked for the ramp to be brought out and were horrified to find it was nothing more than a short trolley/delivery ramp with made an incline of about 40 degrees down the steps. There was nothing we could do about it at that late stage and we were mortified when a member who was in a wheelchair arrived at the con and wasn’t able to access the main panel room. She was lovely about everything, and we refunded her costs as well as moved a speaker out of the room for selected panels she wished to at least hear, but it was an awful situation for everyone and one that could have been prevented with just a little more due diligence on our part.

    (She and I have since become good friends, and we now have a chuckle over the gross ineptitude of the hotel from time to time.)

    I definitely agree with what’s been said here by others: it’s not enough to check with the hotel beforehand. You have to actually view the equipment/setup they’re providing and do a walk-through, preferably with the advice of someone with mobility concerns.

  2. Jeremy Byrne
    April 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    I’ll be encouraging the community to continue the discussion everywhere. It’s too important an issue to confine to just one place.

    So long as this results in some kind of practical outcome–which generally means something written down in one place, eg. the Accessibility article on the wiki–rather than the dissipation of energy across the vast, disconnected wastelands of the social web, that’s great.

  3. Hoger
    April 28, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Thanks Jeremy. Mostly I’m keen to volunteer to be on a convention committee to help run a 2013 natcon if anyone wants me. But if the standing committee decides it’s your responsibility to ensure proper access for all attendees, count me in.

    And I’ll be encouraging the community to continue the discussion everywhere. It’s too important an issue to confine to just one place.

  4. Jeremy Byrne
    April 27, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I’m happy to help and indeed will put my hand up now to be on any commitee for a 2013 natcon (should anyone be fool enough to want me).

    I (and I’m sure the rest of the standing committee) would be exceedingly pleased to welcome you onto the committee to assist us in addressing accessibility issues (and anything else which takes your fancy). If we were able to say to prospective Natcons that we had a set of guidelines which could both save them time and provide them with a positive selling-point, that would almost certainly improve the desirability of the Natcon both to concoms and to congoers.

    Thanks for posting to the Natcons list. Let’s continue to explore this important issue over there.

  5. Hoger
    April 27, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    A few comments responding to various people, so apologies for the apparent randomness.

    Jeremy – 2012 comes before 2013.

    Let’s see if we can make 2012 the most accessible natcon ever and go from there. I’m happy to help and indeed will put my hand up now to be on any commitee for a 2013 natcon (should anyone be fool enough to want me). But one con at a time.

    Lauredhel – Might be worth pursuing in conjunction with this year’s committee. And if the hotel is interested in future business there’s added incentive for them to get it right.

    Sophie – Thanks for jooining in the discussion! I do believe it is something we can get done as a community. We just have to act.

    Kitty – I think Matt will make a big difference! Thank you. I’m disabled (though not a wheelie) and will happily help out anyway I can. Mostly I want to make sure the community keeps talking about it. I’ll be taking up Jeremy’s offer of posting to the Natcon list and I’ll let people know how the discussion goes – or you can copme join in. But as I said, it’s not necessarily something they can fix and we need to address it as a community. And we will.

  6. April 27, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Hey Robert,

    My name is Kitty, and I’m the Convenor for Swancon next year.

    Thank you for writing this post. You are correct, this is an appalling situation and one that I intend to spend a lot of time addressing during my stint as Convenor. I’ve spoken to a lot of people this weekend about accessibility concerns, and I muslf am a disability rights activist, so hopefully I’ll be able to enact some change.

    As Matt said, he is going to be working with us as an Accessibility Consultant, to which I am extremely grateful. I also have a list of changes I will make, which will be listed on the Swancon website soon (when we get it up).

    I’d really appreciate any feedback you can give about how to make cons more accessible. Hopefully we will do better, and make the rest of the community aware that this situation is unacceptable.

  7. April 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Thankyou, Robert, for posting about this and hosting this very necessary discussion. I was very lucky that the accessibility issues at the con didn’t affect me too badly, but they really were ridiculous. From the sound of things this wasn’t entirely the committee’s fault, and hopefully as a community we can learn from this experience for the future.

    Jeremy: of course compromise is inevitable. People with disabilities are already compromising. The con could be far more accessible than it currently is. Whether it should be is a different question, and there are definitely discussions to be had about how to balance accessibility with cost etc. But I refuse to consider “all members legally able to enter the building” to be negotiable.

    (Ack, there’s no preview. I apologise if my html is broken!)

  8. April 27, 2011 at 1:30 am

    I see that you mention “political or media campaigns”, but how about a simple complaint (or set of complaints, from multiple attendees) to the Australian Human Rights Commission? This is 2011, there is no excuse for a venue of that size and prominence to not even have a safe way for people on wheels to enter the venue.

    The DDA covers access to premises used by the public including businesses, and it also covers participation in clubs and associations. Provisions apply to existing premises unless there is “unjustifiable hardship”, and I’m really hard pressed to believe the Hyatt could defend that when you’re talking about such basic things as front-door and car-park access – one of the basic provisions is “5.6.1 All public entrances should be accessible to all users.”, and there are a number other provisions at that link relating to accessibility within premises. There must not just be some sort of access somewhere: “imposing less favourable conditions on a person with a disability in entering premises or using facilities” is also forbidden under the DDA, as is “providing access which is less convenient, dignified or safe than the access provided for other members of the public”.

    These things are non-negotiable under the DDA, unless the venue can prove “unjustifiable hardship”. The onus is on them to do that or fix it, not on excluded people to convince the world, yet again, that they should be allowed to enter a venue safely just like the real humans.

    If the Hyatt’s gone this long without doing anything about their problems, it could be high time they were pinned down, and pinned down hard with the force of Federal law, on this issue. They could get a temporary exemption, but I’d be surprised if they were allowed to just continue on their merry way forever. And, if things are fixed in a year or three, voila, Perth has a suitable large convention space.

    One last important thing to look at is the “Who can complain about an inaccessible building?” section here.

  9. Jeremy Byrne
    April 27, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Paul, unfortunately the difficult issue of finding venues capable of hosting 400-person conventions in Perth is one which has occupied WASFF’s attention for some years. There are, in fact, very few alternatives, and all of them come with their own disadvantages. The Hyatt is, apparently, keen to keep our business, and may well be prepared to work with future concoms to improve accessibility. However, as was explained by the concom to the WASFF Business Meeting on Sunday when these accessibility problems were discussed, it’s the complex (a separate body with which the convention has no financial dealings) rather than the hotel which was responsible for the more egregious accessibility problems. Of course, the staging for awards ceremonies is far easier to rectify than the availability of hotel lifts up from the street and carpark, and is certainly within the purview of the host concom–assuming there is one, of course. Nevertheless, expecting that an economically insignificant group like SF fandom can force change through the power of indignation is optimistic. Perhaps a concerted political or media campaign might do it, had we the influence (did Eric Ripper have a good time at the Con?) but unless we’re ultimately prepared not to have a convention at all if we can’t have the perfect convention, compromise in some form is almost inevitable.

  10. Jeremy Byrne
    April 26, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Unfortunately, the Natcon itself is entirely negotiable.

    There is currently no 2013 Natcon (it should have been awarded at Swancon, but nobody wanted it) so there’s no convention committee to discuss accessibility with. The handful of us who attended the Natcon Business Meeting on Monday morning (draft minutes here, thanks to next year’s Natcon chair) set ourselves–or rather, set the slightly smaller group of us who volunteered to be the standing committee–the task of finding a convention willing to take on the responsibilities of running a Natcon within three months. Of the obvious options, only Swancon 38 currently has a committee, and they’ve already turned down the honour once. (They left open a slight hope that we might be able to persuade them, and the standing committee have committed to developing guidelines and procedures which might help allay their fears that taking on secondary Natcon responsibilities will negatively impact on their ability to deliver on their primary responsibilities to WASFF, who’ve just lost a lot of money running Natcon 50.)

    Should we fail to find a host convention, we’ll have to award the Ditmars at some kind of informal gathering. We have no budget for this, and will probably need to engage in some kind of emergency fundraising effort in order to come up with money for a venue, award trophies and certificates. (These costs are normally met by the host convention, who have a budget.) We’re unlikely to be able to afford any staging, accessible or otherwise, and could conceivably end up giving the Ditmars out, as has happened in the past, in someone’s back yard.

    Any assistance in resolving the fundamental issues involved in delivering a Natcon and awarding the Ditmars in a way which allows as many people as possible to fully participate will be very gratefully received. I’m encouraged by your can-do attitude, Robert, and look forward to constructive suggestions.

  11. Paul Olney
    April 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Simple solution: If a hotel can not meet reasonable requirements, then that hotel is not a viable venue and our cash can go elsewhere.

    The age of the Merlin/Hyatt is not a reasonable excuse, especially at the rates they were charging, because decisions about when to refurbish are just matters of valuing expected cash flows and modifying your considerations for non-cash matters – such as moral issues.

  12. Hoger
    April 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    The outcome is non-negotiable, Jeremy.

    But the way the community reaches that outcome isn’t. We’ve got a great community and we’ll get it done. It will be through volunteering, like Matt is doing, through discussions with convention committees, through pressure on hotels. And through discussions like this.

    It’s too important to leave in the hands of just the standing committee. And nor should they have to do it alone. This community can get it done.

  13. Jeremy Byrne
    April 26, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I wasn’t intending to imply I felt people would grumble about spending more time and money on accessibility. Rather, I was hoping to indicate that convention committees have practical limitations on their ability to get everything right, and need help to do so. More particularly, I was responding to Nikki Logan’s suggestion that the Natcon standing committee should try to force host conventions to do anything. That’s simply not within our power, would run counter to the interests of the Natcon, and is frankly not something any fannish organisation should be doing to any other fannish organisation. Force, or indeed aggression of any kind, is simply not useful or valid in these kinds of interactions.

    As you say, the community will support the efforts of concoms to get this right; they won’t, and shouldn’t, support attempts to bully or blackmail concoms to do anything. The accessibility cause can well do without a misperception of entitlement syndrome, and patronising sympathy-outrage.

    Claiming something is “non-negotiable”, while valid rhetoric, does little to actually achieve the aim of improving accessibility. The vibrant, extensive and successful childrens’ programming stream at Swancon wasn’t brought about by demands, but rather by interested parties organising to ensure that it was provided. Similarly, Matt’s willingness to devote his time and effort to improving accessibility is laudable, and exactly the right way to go about this.

  14. April 26, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for putting this out there Rob, and thanks to everyone for responding. These conversations mean at the very least, committees can’t use ignorance as an excuse for why these things aren’t dealt with.

    I’ll certainly be forwarding it to the Conflux committee so it is part of their thinking as well.

  15. Hoger
    April 26, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks Amanda. Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that the hotel let the committee down.

    Jeremy, I think we all have a role in addressing it. As you said, there may be some grumbling from some people. Tough. This is too important not to do. You could throw a convention that cost $40 for five days, have free books and beer, had 10 international guests (including a resurrected Isaac Asimov) and people would still complain that you raised the Nightfall era Asimov from the dead instead of the Foundation’s Edge Asimov.

    That’s not a reason to do this. And I think the community should and will come to the view that it’s important to support convention committees in their attempts to get this stuff right. We can do it if we tackle it together as a community.

    Matt has already put himself forward to help in a meaningful way. And I think the rest of the community is likely to form the opinion that this is non-negotiable too.

  16. Matt Lindus
    April 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    A good read Robert.

    You and your other readers, especially in the Swancon community will be happy that I’ve already offered my services to the 2012 committee to discuss issues, and to independently visit possible venues prior to a final decision so that actual issues can be looked at and either fixed by the venue, or a temporary fix provided by someone. Staging is something that often gets overlooked also and it is in my list of things already, so I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking of these things.

    I have talked with many of the other mobility impaired patrons of this year’s convention and will be quite happy to get any advise from others on what they think is needed to be done.

    I have also talked with Hyatt staff and will be discussing with them further, as I really didn’t enjoy the accessibility for a wheelchair to the hotel.

    I have also talked with a few other committees for future conventions already.

    One of the reasons I approached them is that it needed to be done. The other is that as I was told by the next conveener, it can sometimes be difficult to go up to people with disabilities and ask what they need or if they need help. Far easier for me to go to them than the other way around.

    Hopefully from this comes some great changes for those of us with various mobility issues, and people without them get to think more about what they can do to help us.

  17. Jeremy Byrne
    April 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Accessibility is obviously a very important consideration for community organisations and events like the Natcon. However, as the DDA exceptions Robert quotes above imply, practical limitations may impact on the delivery of ideal outcomes, and convention committees are volunteer groups called upon to devote large amounts of unpaid time to balance a range of often competing interests which include venue size and location and membership price. (I have no doubt that more people had their participation in the Natcon this year restricted due to membership and room costs than due to venue accessibility, for example.)

    The 2013 Natcon and Ditmar Awards are currently homeless, in part because they have developed a reputation for being burdensome to the host convention–a situation for which I bear some personal responsibility, regrettably. The kind of righteous indignation which results in suggestions that the host convention be forced to do anything, rather than informed, assisted and encouraged, is simply unhelpful. Snark and blame-laying are lazy and ineffective mechanisms for effecting change; the resolution of important community issues of this kind requires empathy, cooperation and mutual support. While it’s very important that this discussion be had and acted upon, “what can I do to help fix this?” will always be more successful than “who can I fail-tag?”

    The Natcon standing committee are currently in the process of producing some support documentation for future host conventions, and we’d be very pleased to receive assistance from the community in developing the accessibility component of those guidelines. The ideal place to discuss Natcon-related issues of this kind is currently the mailing list.

  18. Amanda Rainey
    April 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I think you’ve raised some very important issues that we all have to do more work on, but I think it’s important to clarify that Terri spent months talking about accessibility with the Hyatt, using a checklist created by Karen Babcock, and was misled with some of the hotel’s answers.

    Not to say it wasn’t a huge problem, because it was, and is, and the committee is deeply sorry that it happened. But we did work hard to address them. Hopefully this will help improve the list (particularly we could create a list of follow up questions for the venue) so we can do better in the future.

  19. April 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Accessibility to the hotel was something my wife and I discussed as we climbed the (many) steps to the hotel frontage, particularly when we were accompanied by our children and the pram they were pushing. The only ramp was for vehicles only, and was clearly marked ‘No Pedestrian access’. You could ignore that– we did– but that put you in the path of the numerous taxis using the ramp on a constant basis. Hardly the last word in safety.

    The Hyatt (or The Merlin, as it was when it first opened) was built before many of the accessibility laws came into being. I’m *very* murky on this, but I have a dim memory of being told that buildings built before a certain year (memory strikes that it was 1981) don’t have to undertake too much in the way of accessibility provisions because of the cost involved. Is anyone with better knowledge able to shed any light, because it strikes me that it may be that particular hotel’s foxhole if confronted with the issue.

  20. Dave Cake
    April 26, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Rob, I think you don’t go far enough. The awards night is one single night of a multi-day event, and there were a large number of accessibility complaints about the venue overall. I know the con committee did ask about disabled access from the venue, but they didn’t do a walk through. And mobility issues aren’t the only disability issues to consider (Mike Kent gave an excellent talk earlier in the convention about disability and internet media, discussing problems with access to information only available via formats like Flash and PDF, for example). We simply need to lift our game about disability in convention running in all aspects. We should be asking con bids about disability, we should be expecting conventions to have delegated responsibility for disability, we should be documenting disability issues (procedures and experiences) for convention runners. And we should be, as you have done here, speaking up when problems occur.

  21. Dave Cake
    April 26, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Nikki, I don’t think you are correct. The committee Rob refers to, that I am a member of (chair of, in fact), has quite limited powers, and specifically does not control the ceremony itself. We aren’t an auspicing body, rather we are a sub-committee charged with doing a particular task (primarily running a ballot process for one set of awards, among several awards given out). We can, and will, request that disability access is considered at future events, but we have limited options to enforce it.

  22. Hoger
    April 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks Nikki.

    At the very least, I would have thought the Hyatt should have raised the issue with the committee.

    I’m not familiar with the WA regs but the national DDA laws include exceptions that limit changes that might need to be made if it would cause “major difficulties or excessive costs to a person or organisation.”

    But hopefully if we’re thinking about it far enough ahead as a community – like you are – we wouldn’t need to resort to anything like that anyway.

  23. April 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    You said ‘they can’t force a convention committee to do it’.

    Actually they can and should, as the auspice organisation, require the organising committee of any event overseen by them to comply with national compliance requirements (including OSH, Disability and Health regs). THEY are ultimately liable for a disability discrimination claim and so have the final responsiblity. Also, in this case state requirements under Western Australia’s Disability Access and Inclusion Act (2004) further requires that all people have the same access to services and events. DAI legislation puts the onus on orgs to think outside the mobility-centric box to identify all the different ways someone with different needs may be unintentionally excluded and remedy them.

    But in this case no-one was even thinking INSIDE the mobility-centric box. Safe, compliant ramps to raised areas is about the best known tick in disability check-boxes that there is and it has been around for decades.

    The auspicing body should have required it, the conference orgs should have thought of it, and the The Hyatt has a legal obligation under WA law to have thought of it and offer a solution as a standard (not by request).

    The most basic kinds of universal access are not rocket science. Tho, maybe if it was it would have been given more thought at this particular event. Maybe everyone’s heads were so full of the cool bits and the fun bits no-one really wanted to think about the dull compliance bits.

    Certainly a good lesson for me as co-coord of a 2013 event. It’s just gone on our must-have list.

    Thanks Robert.

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