Though the Americans with Disabilities Act has prohibited discrimination against individuals since 1990, it is only in the past few years that the organizations sponsoring book-related trade shows, conferences, and conventions have taken steps to accommodate people with disabilities. “The conversation is just now getting started, and the time for ignorance is over,” said Annie Carl, owner of the Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., who cited estimates that close to 57 million Americans have a disability. “Disability is too often excluded in discussions of diversity. But disability crosses racial, gender, sexuality, class, and national boundaries. People need to speak up, and the publishing industry needs to listen.”
Approximately 30 individuals whom PW interviewed cited mobility—though some mentioned chronic pain, hearing, and low vision—as affecting their comfort at shows and conferences, including those held by the American Library Association and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, as well as BookExpo (organized by Reed), BookCon and New York Comic Con (ReedPop), San Diego Comic-Con (Comic-Con International), and Winter Institute and Children’s Institute (the American Booksellers Association).
According to several people PW spoke with who have attended AWP’s annual conference, the failure to accommodate people with disabilities is a long-standing problem that came to the forefront in 2015, when every panel about disability proposed for AWP 2016 was rejected by organizers.
“That was shocking to people,” poet Jillian Weise recalled. “It was a critical moment when everyone started asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
A group of AWP members established a disability caucus that year, while others went public about their experiences at AWP—including poet Steve Kuusisto, who blogged about attendees stepping over him after he fell down just before a popular panel was slated to begin.
Since the turnover in the organization’s leadership last year, AWP has become more proactive in making the conference more accessible. Colson Whitehead’s keynote at AWP 2019 was livestreamed and closed-captioned. Panelists could Skype into their sessions. Complimentary scooters and wheelchairs were provided, as were shuttles and Lyft codes.
“I feel grateful for the livestreaming and having access to participation via Skype,” Weise said. She also noted that six of the featured speakers at AWP 2019 “were openly and proudly disabled.” She praised those who lobbied for the changes: “I commend all the disabled writers and activists who worked and agitated to make changes possible, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Weise and other writers with disabilities agree that problems remain. Complaints tweeted during AWP 2019 included reports of an accessibility help desk staffed by unhelpful volunteers, an accommodations hotline where calls went unanswered, huge registration lines that also required walking up and down stairs, a lack of ASL interpreters, poor signage regarding accessibility, technological breakdowns affecting Skyping panelists, and obstructions inside and outside the convention center due to construction.
But, said Jess Silfa, current president of the AWP Disability Caucus, the organization is making progress, assisted by a seven-member ad hoc committee formed last year to advise staff—including the accessibility coordinator, who is obtaining her ADA certification. “There’s more of a collaboration with AWP now,” Silfa added, noting that its current leadership is “incredibly receptive” to adhering to ADA provisions.
The Trade Shows
Though the trade shows have not generated much controversy over accommodation, a few book people have raised concerns. One freelance book reviewer requesting anonymity told PW that she applies each year to use a wheeled cart at BookExpo—which requires a doctor’s note “that has to be scanned and sent to any number of people.” While praising Reed for providing more seating in the exhibit areas in 2019 than in previous years, and for having moved shipping services onto the show floor, she maintains that the process to obtain accommodation “is getting harder and harder” each year and needs to be “streamlined.”
Carl agreed that providing seating is essential at trade shows—not just in the exhibit hall but also in the formal autographing area. BookExpo, she thinks, can do better. “It would be such an easy fix to provide chairs for people who can’t stand in long autographing lines,” she pointed out. “I am at these shows to work. I don’t want to be sitting on my ass just waiting for the line to die down.”
Accommodations were “pretty good,” Carl said, at this year’s Children’s Institute, the first she has attended. But she was disappointed that there were no ASL interpreters during featured presentations.
Veronica Liu of New York City’s Word Up Community Bookstore complained of the noise levels at the Children’s Institute Rep Picks luncheon. Noting that another bookseller at Word Up has hearing issues, Liu said that the din at this event “made me wonder whether I would be able to send them to an institute or a regional by themself—if this really integral part of trade shows would not be viable.”
Booksellers lauded the ABA’s installation of a shipping area next to the galley rooms at its two institutes, but senior strategy officer Dan Cullen admits that other accommodations are made “per member input” and by request, “as often individual needs are variable.” The organization is only now drafting a more formal policy to better serve institute attendees.
Fans cited mobility issues compounded by a lack of crowd control as problems at literary fan fests and conventions, all of which provide those who apply with medical stickers, passes, or wristbands.
ReedPop is “doing a good job with NYCC, but there’s always room for improvement,” noted John Turbo, a podcaster who uses a motorized wheelchair. For instance, he said, there is no space allocated for wheelchairs during panel sessions. “All they do is put in chairs,” he noted. “So I have to sit in the walkway or in back.” He added that there are typically no ramps in meeting rooms with podiums or at the Marvel Comics pavilion, where fans must climb stairs to a platform to meet celebrities.
“Disabled people can’t meet the celebrities,” Turbo said. “And Marvel does this year after year. It’s very surprising that they are allowed to get away with this.”
But Turbo saved his harshest criticisms for able-bodied attendees. “Some of the aisles are so narrow, one or two people stopping to look at something clogs them up,” he complained. “Even if you yell, ‘wheelchair,’ no one moves. NYCC’s Code of Conduct reminds people to take showers and to use deodorant. But it doesn’t remind them to be aware of others around you—especially people with disabilities.”
Erin Jackson has accompanied her disabled mother to BookCon since it launched in 2014 and echoed the sentiments of many who spoke with PW about that show. Accommodations this year were “the worst,” she said, noting that in previous years, people with medical passes were allowed to enter the exhibit hall first, followed by VIPs. This year, VIPs entered first, followed by people with medical passes, and then everybody else.
“And people were allowed to run to the booths,” Jackson added. She and her mother were caught up in a Sunday morning scrum around a HarperCollins Children’s Publishing tote bag giveaway. “People started pushing forward and reaching over our shoulders and around us to grab the bags,” she said, “It was scary.”
Another attendee, Jenn Von Jollycheeks, reported that she witnessed “a young woman with a cane nearly get pushed to the ground and trampled” during an ARC drop. “There needs to be proactive measures taken to protect medical pass holders with mobility issues, whether it be allowing lines to form earlier and capping them so that a mob doesn’t form,” she said. “Or maybe the specific ARC drop shouldn’t be announced, which could potentially keep the crazy-rude and pushy attendees from coming full force.”
Christine Butler Grazia, whose MS affects her mobility, also said her experience at BookCon this year was “horrible.” Not only did vendors refuse to accommodate her, she said, but BookCon staff did as well. “For my first signing, I was told by a BookCon employee that their supervisor told them not to honor medical passes,” she recalled. “For my second signing, I was told there was nothing they could do for me, that I had to wait in line like everyone else, and that I could drag a chair through the line myself. My balance was so bad, I kept falling into my friend. For my last signing of the day, I had the same issues.”
After complaining to ReedPop, Grazia received a phone call from event manager Jenny Martin, who apologized for the violations of show policies and promised that staff would be better trained to honor medical passes in future—an assurance that Martin reiterated to PW.
As for the nearly 50-year-old San Diego Comic-Con, feedback regarding accommodations ran the gamut. A number of attendees complained about having to wait outside in “ADA lines” to obtain wristbands for entry into various events and areas. Others reported such issues as a lack of seating in exhibit halls and long waits for the few elevators in the convention center.
Others, however, praised SDCC’s accommodations. “Awesome people work the ADA services,” reported Tara Oakes, who has been to 10 Comic-Cons. She cited the presence of ASL interpreters at all of the larger panels, noting that they could also be requested for smaller panels, as well as the availability and affordability of rental scooters and wheelchairs.
Another attendee was even more effusive. Chronic pain and mobility issues caused Jeanie Herger to apply for a medical pass at SDCC in 2018. “SDCC accommodated me,” she said, with a wheelchair and storage for her items. “All the booths were very kind in helping me and my handler through. They let me wait in a waiting area at exhibits that had long lines so I didn’t have to stand, then let me in. SDCC staff let me go to the front for panels as well. They are very, very accommodating. Just bring your paperwork to show them at the accessibility help desk.”
When it comes to accommodation, however, the ALA might be the gold standard. PW did not receive a single complaint about the ALA’s accommodations at its conferences.
According to conference services director Paul Graller, the organization “really stepped up” the accommodation it provides “for any ALA function” in 2013 after receiving “comments.” Not only does the ALA have an accessibility task force but for the past six years, the Chicago Hearing Society’s executive director has contracted with it to manage conference accommodations and maintain an accessibility hotline and dedicated email account year-round.
For years at ALA conferences, there have been plenty of seating in the exhibit areas and post offices in the middle. ASL interpreters and escorts for the blind have been on hand, and major presentations have had both interpreters and closed captioning. Sixty motorized wheelchairs have been made available at each event, and accessible shuttle buses have been provided. There have been wheelchair areas in every meeting room and ballroom, and there has been signage informing attendees of this. Exhibitors have even been educated beforehand about making their booths accessible.
“With the aging population of the ALA, more people need accommodation, and that’s just going to increase as our numbers increase,” Graller said. “With registration up 8% this past June and an anticipated increase of 8%–10% in January, if even 1% of our audience needs accommodation, we just want to stay ahead of the game.”