When Fan Conventions Exclude Deaf People, They Fail Everyone

Pixabay
Creation Entertainment has been criticized by the Deaf community for its handling of accessibility services, drawing attention to a broader issue.

For the past three years, Seattle native Kai Winchester has been attending fan conventions organized by Creation Entertainment, a major entertainment company that holds the rights to many popular films and television series, including Star Trek, Twilight, and Stargate SG-1. Because Winchester is Deaf, he has had to advocate for the provision of sign language interpreters. The experience has been arduous and frustrating; the first time he requested interpreters at the Salute to Supernatural 2015 convention in Seattle, the organizers flat-out refused him, forcing him to spend more than a year liaising back and forth by email, repeatedly citing disability law and ultimately threatening to sue before they finally relented.

In the subsequent four conventions he attended, the situation only improved slightly. While the organizers were now more willing to provide interpreters, they still shamed him, pushed back against his requests, and provided substandard services, ranging from booking inexperienced interpreters for challenging stage roles, to only providing interpreters for part of the schedule. Still, with constant feedback and dispute, his experiences with the company had improved enough that he felt cautiously optimistic about their Supernatural VanCon 2017 convention in Vancouver. He purchased tickets with another Deaf friend, Melody Hardesty, and emailed the organizers seven months in advance to let them know that they would be attending.

Two months before the convention was slated to start, Creation Entertainment replied that they would no longer provide interpretation services at Canadian conventions. While Winchester used the Americans with Disabilities Act to argue that the company was legally obliged to provide interpretation services for their Seattle conventions, in Canada, there is no equivalent federal standard. Individual provinces may have their own legal code governing accessibility (for example, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires that businesses provide interpreters), but the province of the Vancouver conference, British Columbia, only has a Human Rights Code. While this act does define disability as a class protected from discrimination, it is broad and does not specify the exact obligations of businesses. Creation Entertainment argued that they did not have to provide interpretation for their Canadian conventions.

“We will no longer be offering complimentary interpreting services at Canadian shows,” wrote a representative of Creation Entertainment to Winchester. “We have checked this with several Canadian Government offices to make sure we are following the law.” To add insult to injury, the email continued: “[we] want to do more, so we will still allow you to bring a friend to the show free of charge to interpret for you.” Creation also offered to move Kai and the friend closer to the stage, and to provide complimentary autograph tickets with two of the performers at the convention.

To Winchester, the suggestion to bring a friend was not an appropriate way to cover the services Creation Entertainment would no longer provide; to further frame them as a favor to him was condescending. Asking a friend to take time out of their schedule to commit to three or four days of unpaid, grueling labor in exchange for little enjoyment for themselves as they would be on duty the full time, was simply not a demand that he could impose on anyone he knew and valued. Even if he could find a friend, their solution would not work for anyone without a strong relationship with a professional interpreter.

Above all, the email confirmed what the two had long suspected the company thought of them: that they were a burden. Hardesty had struggled with these feelings at previous conventions. “I felt incredibly stressed and guilty for having to make these requests in the first place, and I worried that other fans might think that we were ‘abusing’ the system.”

‘I felt incredibly stressed and guilty for having to make these requests in the first place.’

Creation Entertainment’s refusal to provide access comes at a time when the inclusion of people with disabilities at fan conventions is increasingly recognized as an issue. Even where legal provisions exist, organizers are frequently untrained, underestimate the logistics of arranging accessibility, and may be hostile or unresponsive to people who request equal access. Fan conventions are exciting events that give people the opportunity to connect with others who share their interests, and to define the communities around the stories they love; it is unfair that people with disabilities are all too frequently excluded from these dynamics.

Promotional material for a Supernatural fan convention in Phoenix, Arizona hosted by Creation Entertainment.

To combat this problem, many organizers have taken responsibility into their own hands: Mary Robinette Kowal, former Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America vice president, hosted a pledge on her website by Uncanny Magazine publishers Lynne and Michael Thomas that asked professionals not to attend any convention that does not have accessible facilities, trained staff members, and an accessibility statement, and the Geek Feminism Wiki curates a list of conventions with accessibility policies. But while these initiatives are a highly positive start, the drive to get convention organizers as a whole to recognize accessibility as an issue remains slow.

For fans of particular series, it can be difficult to avoid inaccessible conventions entirely: Creation Entertainment, for example, boasts that it hosts as many as 110 conventions a year, the larger ones gathering as many as 30,000 attendees, and the company holds exclusive rights to many defining pieces of culture.

Creation is certainly not alone in failing to accommodate the Deaf community — but it is a particularly telling example of how far fan conventions have to go to be truly accessible.

Winchester and Hardesty are not the only Deaf people who have had negative experiences with Creation Entertainment. Jocelynn Johnson, who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, recounted how she spent eight months negotiating with the company for interpreters for a convention in Las Vegas, but only got to the point where she got them to offer interpreters for “select” panels. When she asked the company to elaborate, they cut off communication, and only resurfaced to repeat their offer a day before the convention was to start — but by that time, it was too late for her to purchase tickets or make travel arrangements.

Johnson was disappointed when she learned that Winchester had already spent years educating the company prior to her own requests, including communication with some of the same contacts she had spoken to. “Some education is usually required,” she explained. “Most places tend to stumble a bit, but that’s okay as long as they’re open to corrections.” However, what Creation Entertainment was doing went beyond simple trial-and-error. Indeed, both Johnson and Winchester persisted for so long in pushing for accessibility not just for themselves, but because they felt an obligation to improve the situation for other disabled fans. “Did I seriously spend more than a year trying to educate them, for them to ‘forget’ that any time it becomes convenient for them to do so?” asked Winchester.

Promotional material for a ‘Once Upon A Time’ convention tour hosted by Creation Entertainment (Credit: Facebook)

Frustrated and feeling like all other options had been exhausted, Winchester and his friends took to social media to publicize Creation Entertainment’s response to him, in hopes of spurring the company into doing the right thing. He garnered a small but notable response that included support from several Deaf public figures, including Rikki Poynter, a well-known Deaf YouTuber and accessibility advocate, and Shoshannah Stern, a deaf actress who has appeared on the TV series Supernatural, which Creation Entertainment has licensing rights to. Stern tweeted that she was in contact with Creation Entertainment, and promised an update soon.

As so many Deaf people had reached out to give feedback, I asked Gary Berman, a representative from Creation Entertainment, about plans for accessibility at their conventions moving forward. In an email response, it was suggested to me that the social media initiative had blown the story out of proportion. “In Canada, we have only had two requests [for interpreters], while in the U.S., we only have about 8–10 requests a year,” Berman said.

Berman confirmed that Creation Entertainment received feedback from Stern and her representatives, and will now be providing interpretation for their Supernatural convention in Vancouver and Toronto. “We have always accommodated those with extra challenges and will continue to do so to the very best of our ability.” Berman further emphasized that the company frequently receives positive feedback from many clients with “physical challenges,” and that they often offer the option of going to the front of the lines for fans with physical disabilities.

But Kim Palmer from Vancouver, who lost her hearing due to childhood cancer, believes that the number of people who are affected by Creation Entertainment’s mishandling of accessibility greatly outnumber the ones that email them. Palmer had previously requested interpretation for a convention in Seattle in 2015, but was refused, making her hesitant to get trapped into another dispute with the company over accessibility. “Seeing all the photos and videos from fans who had been able to attend the convention made me feel left out,” said Palmer. “I only found out after the fact that they had decided to provide interpreters for another fan, and had never told me.”

For Creation Entertainment conventions, the tickets are expensive and non-refundable, and Palmer felt that the organizers would challenge her if she did not purchase them before she requested interpreters. Since her experiences in 2015, she has often opted to wait for other attendees to confirm that they had secured interpretation before purchasing tickets. She said that many other Deaf and hard-of-hearing people she knew, both in person and on social media, felt the same way, avoiding engagement with the company due its bad reputation for access and them not having the energy to self-advocate.

Although this specific incident with Creation Entertainment may have come to a resolution where access is now being provided, the means through which it was achieved is troubling. Interpreters were only offered after Winchester became public about his experiences, attracting both celebrity and journalistic attention to the issue. How a company conducts itself in the public eye is separate from how it operates privately, and no Deaf person should feel forced to expose themselves to the court of public opinion and enlist celebrities before they can obtain equal access. To illustrate this point, Palmer provided an email from her previous attempts to secure interpretation, which repeated the exact points made to Winchester. “We are a privately held company and are not required by law to provide an interpreter,” wrote the representative. “What we can do is if you have a friend that can interpret, we can allow them to come in for free.” But unlike Winchester, Palmer did not go public and simply dropped out of the convention.

How a company conducts itself in the public eye is separate from how it operates privately.

While it is true that Creation Entertainment is not the only inaccessible convention organizer out there, that many Deaf convention-goers have specifically singled the company out as a bad offender should be considered in balance with the remarkable tolerance and flexibility for these situations that many have developed. Some resistance to providing interpretation and some ignorance of accessibility is common. Because Winchester cares about the community, he has frequently volunteered for smaller conferences without asking for interpreters, as he didn’t want them to bear the financial cost. Similarly, Johnson is so accustomed to patiently educating and explaining accessibility to organizers that she was shocked when an event she went to, organized by John Barrowman, an actor for Arrow and Doctor Who, enthusiastically agreed to provide interpreters, no questions asked. “I nearly cried, because it was such a relief not to have to be disappointed in people’s unwillingness to consider our perspective, and not to have to fight for this.”

With the effort it takes these Deaf convention-goers to educate organizers and fight for access, one may wonder what compels them to persist for as long as they have. For Johnson, the experiences she gains when access works out makes the struggle worth it. “I’ve met hundreds of people at these cons, made new friends, kept up old friendships, met tons of celebrities, and have seen a lot of neat stuff.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s words highlight how fan conventions are about the people involved. The way that they connect people from diverse backgrounds together, tied by a thread of common interest, is a force for building community. Especially powerful is how fandom often transcends not just disability, but other aspects of identity like race, gender, class, and sexuality, allowing for people to be exposed to perspectives and experiences they would have never had the opportunity to in their everyday lives.

When the desire to cut corners supersedes the goal of fostering community, everyone suffers. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people may bear much of the immediate brunt, but the net impact of excluding people who do not always align with the goal of maximizing profit above all else means that conventions increasingly lose out on thriving and diverse social environments.

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