Behind the Scenes with Disability Services

disability_servicesDragon Con is dedicated to making its events accessible to as many people as possible. Cherie Wren, the Director of Disability Services, oversees the convention’s assistance services, which range from registration help to interpreter services and wheelchair-accessible shuttles. She sat down with the Daily Dragon to discuss the way her department works.

Daily Dragon (DD): How long have you been working with Disability Services at Dragon Con?

Cherie Wren (CW): I started in 1999 as an ASL interpreter. At that time the department was very small, maybe as many as 10 to 12 people (totally guessing). I’m not actually sure when I switched to director, maybe around 2005 or so?

DD: What services does your department provide, and who’s eligible for them?

CW: We provide a host of services, including ASL interpreters, an electronic version of the Con schedule to be downloaded to a screenreading device, volunteers maintaining access to all the larger Main Programming spaces/lines, running registration for people who can’t manage it, providing Friends of Bill meetings every evening of Con, wheelchair accessible shuttles to all Con venues, and probably what we’re best known for, stickers on badges to denote various seating and line accommodations. To be eligible for our services, you need to have a disability that impacts your ability to access some area of the Con. For example, I have a speech disability, but that doesn’t qualify for services because it doesn’t affect my Con experience, except when people are interviewing me… the reason I prefer print interviews.

A disability that affected someone’s ability to stand for extended periods of time, or their ability to see or hear the event; those would qualify. It’s important to note that a temporary disability, such as a broken leg, is still a disability and qualifies for services. Pregnancy is NOT a disability under the law, unless it involves serious medical complications well beyond the normal discomforts of pregnancy.

DD: How far ahead of time do you start preparing for the con?

CW: On Monday at the end of Con, we have debriefing day. All my volunteers come by and tell me what worked and what didn’t. We discuss any major complaints we have received and how to resolve the issue. A few of my senior crew and I have discussions about what we could do better next year.

Beyond that, things really don’t start until around February or March, when we send out the first call to volunteers, asking them to let us know if they will be working with us again. I answer email queries year round, and maintain our website.

DD: What does preparing for the con involve?

CW: I have a lot less preparation than many, I think. Other than marshalling my troops and talking to people with questions about our services, I am not really busy until around June or July, when we start scheduling. I have two different departments to schedule, our regular Disability Services volunteers, and our ASL interpreters and signers. Usually my second, Cherie Newton, handles the regulars, and I manage the interpreters. Around this time the email volume also picks up significantly. The weekend before the Con there is some frenetic organizing and packing, and then the joy that is Dragon Con.

DD: How much advance notice is ideal for helping congoers with access issues?

CW: For the vast majority of things we don’t need advance notice at all. If you have a disability that can be accommodated with one of our stickers, we don’t need to know in advance. If you need a large print program printed, need a personal care assistant, or have a unique situation, then we’ll need to know as far in advance as possible. An example of this would be the DeafBlind individual that came last year. This person present in a panel means we may need TWO interpreters in the room, one for the Deaf person/people, and one for the DeafBlind person. This requires me to request extra interpreters allotted to my department, so I have to know far enough in advance to get that done.

DD: How many volunteers do you have?

CW: I have a total of 67 positions available in my department, 47 regular and 20 signers/interpreters. I usually fill up my “regulars” pool, but only rarely fill up the other. I have around 10 paid interpreters, several volunteer interpreters, and signers who work in registration, assisting Deaf people through registration, and explaining our interpreter request system.

DD: Are there any particular skills you seek in volunteers?

CW: No special requirements, except for signers and interpreters. Signers have to be able to hold a one-on-one conversation with a Deaf person; interpreters should be fluent in ASL, and preferably certified. I will take noncertified interpreters, but I have to see samples of their work first, both of their signing ability and their geek/nerd knowledge.

DD: Do volunteers undergo department-specific training?

CW: Most of it is on-the-job training. I have written up some things for people to read, but it almost never happens. I have great plans for when the volunteer recruiting and training department really gets going. I would like to have some training for all volunteers on disability awareness and sensitivity, an addition to more specific training for my folks.

DD: Does your department use any special forms of technology?

CW: The people who do data entry for me in our registration area are all blind (this includes my second) and use a screenreading program so they can interface with the computers. Our interpreter request system is online via google forms/docs so it is accessible via a mobile device.

DisabilitySvcsDD: What’s the most common problem that arises during the con?

CW: Oh, the stories I could tell… Silly, lack of common sense things are the most common. Last year a volunteer directed a man in a wheelchair out a particular exit. The exit went to a patio area that had that door and stairs if you wanted to go anywhere else. The man in the wheelchair returned to the door, but the security person wouldn’t let him back in because he needed to get people out and let no one back in.

DD: Are there any misconceptions the general population of congoers may have about your department?

CW: Not about my department per se, but about our consumers: people think of people with disabilities as all being in wheelchairs, or some other way obvious to the naked eye. This could not be farther from the truth. The vast majority of people we serve have invisible disabilities. To a quick glance, they look just like any other person. And when they move into disability seating or the line, people mutter. These people a chronic illness or condition that fits the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They live their lives having to constantly explain that they are indeed entitled to accommodations.

DD: Is there anything you regularly have to emphasize to people qualifying for services?

CW: Every person that gets a Disability Services sticker is allowed one companion that can stay with them. Sometimes people want us to accommodate a whole group. There is an exception for minor children, of course.

DD: Are there any situations that are particularly challenging or rewarding?

CW: It’s the whole experience that is both challenging and rewarding. The challenges of dealing with problems, situations where the process has failed someone. The rewards of seeing how many people we help, and hearing from people telling us how our services allowed them to enjoy Dragon Con when they would otherwise be unable to manage it. The people on my team are all wonderful. Many of my volunteers have disabilities and work their tails off to help others. Hanging out with them on Monday, trying to solve the world’s (ok, the Con’s) problems and playing Exploding Kittens… Can’t beat it.

DD: If people have questions or need assistance during the con, how can they contact your department?

CW: We have a crew in the Sheraton, outside onsite registration, all the hours registration is open except Sunday evening. For people who cannot make it to the Sheraton because of their disability, we have someone all day Thursday in Marriott L504 (eternal registration) and the rest of the Con in the Atrium Ballroom. This is actually a person, not a location: ask for Emma. Information Services can also help if you can’t get to the Sheraton and can’t find Emma. (Please note: the Marriott location is an accommodation, not there for convenience sake. If you can make it to the Sheraton, you should.)

DD: Thanks for your time!

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.