I was somewhere in the exhibition hall when the liquorice began to take hold. Sugar-coated stuff, metre-long, hanging from my mouth like a tongue as I pushed the mobility scooter full-tilt across the wide and depopulated floor.
Sure, there were people, a few, but most of us had gone, readying for the Hugos. I could zip about the few ambling bodies remaining. I’d been using the scooter, The Beast, for nearly five hours now. I was a pro.
A friend had pointed out a switch on the steering wheel pillar and we’d figured it some super-speedy feature, like the nox injection thingie Mad Max had in The Road Warrior. I hadn’t dared touch the thing earlier. But now…
I flicked the switch. Tortoise into hare. Holy shit. This was fantastic. The liquorice rope almost flew out my mouth. I did an entire lap of the hall, around the island of felt boards and gaming tables. I was shiny and chrome. Or near as damn.
Making a corner, I saw the backs of three people walking right ahead of me. One was arguably the most well-regarded genre short story writer living, the other two Hugo nominees. All of them oblivious to the fanboy hurtling toward them, rancid with cheap glucose and electric dreams.
I turned the Beast and nearly flew into some chairs. Luckily I remembered to let go of the accelerator. Just pure skill and instinct I guess.
I took a deep breath, chewed on the sticky liquorice length. That had been close. The wrong move and I’d have been an ugly footnote in the Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction, one nasty weekend #hashtag.
Clearly, I’d become an animal. The power. I’d never needed a scooter until that day and now I was intoxicated by wheels. I was sickened with myself; this weekender, this arrogant arriviste. People have to use these machines on a daily basis, dammit. They have to be responsible.
Time to listen. To learn.
My day-long ‘disability’ came in the form of a sprained ankle (The left one, to use medical jargon). I’ve no idea what caused it; my foot became suddenly tender whilst sat in a czech restaurant on the Friday night. Needless to say I’m staying clear of miteleuropean cuisine from here on in. No easy task.
My fellow diners- a Clarion 2011 reunion actually, plus pals- voiced concern as I sauntered like my fellow Leicesterhirean the Elephant Man to the toilet, to which I put on a grim smile and muttered ‘no, really, I’m fine’ platitudes.
By the time I returned it was not fine. I had to turn down a wander around Helsinki and make the grand death-march back to Worldcon 75. Luckily I was accompanied by some of my dinner buddies, notably Annie Bellet who also had a bad leg (war wound), both of us taking comfort in the fact we’d a healthy pair of legs between us. Sadly they were righties. However, it was unanimously agreed that, in the event of a zombie incursion, sensible money was on Annie outpacing me to survival. Hey, I knew the risks.
The Red Cross volunteers were all over me- they’d had a quiet day, it transpired- pampering me with ice and bindings. I’m absolutely indebted to them (Though a few grapes dangled in my mouth wouldn’t have gone amiss. Just saying, fellas)
I missed Saturday morning. Took me two hours to hop-a-long to the convention. The phrase ‘so easy to take walking for granted, isn’t it?’ was insufferably clear to me by then, and I certainly wouldn’t have thanked you for saying it. Dickhead.
Author Phil Harding wasn’t so churlish as to say such, bless him. He took one look at me and said: “Right, let’s get you to the access desk.”
“Is it hard to get to?” I said, though my heart wasn’t in the quipping game. Far from.
The access desk people were lovely, a testament to the convention. For some reason I thought a mere sprained ankle would be laughed off (‘Yeah, mate. Come back when it’s broken. Stop wasting our time.’), but nothing was too much for these guys. case in point, I asked for crutches and they offered…
A mobility scooter.
“What? I just… get in and… and drive?”
I don’t drive. Haven’t driven so much as a go-cart. I remember being eleven years old and my dad letting me accelerate the family car in a factory yard. I hit a stack of palettes. Years later my friend Craig let me try the ignition of our band’s touring van. I hit the pub wall and his inebriated girlfriend vomited in the back seats.
With that resume what could possibly go wrong? I put ‘The Beast’ into forward and hit the road. Within minutes I’d got the bloody thing jammed in a fire exit. I clicked reverse and jammed my bad foot between the scooter and the door.
Not a great start, but after Phil took me aside and explained the basics of horseless contraptions, matters improved.
I had entered a different Worldcon, a different world, one that exists at 2.5 feet below every convention. A place where your vision is full of ass cracks and belt-hanging water bottles.
For starters, people using smartphones are something of a nuisance, stood in corridors and eye-fucking their twit-boxes. I imagine their appearance in the mid-2000s was luminous to anyone with mobility impairment, hitting that community like a watermelon through a cake shop window. Oft was the time someone in front of me- their head bowed- would slow from a stride to a church mouse scuttle, coming to a complete stop as they took in the multilayered nuances of a 120 character sentence.
“Erm…” I would say, releasing the accelerator. “Excuse me, could…”
And not once, not once, did the phone user register me. It was always someone nearby, seeing my plight and getting their attention. Of course there’d be profound apologies once they saw me and, frankly, that was the shocking bit. I could see me in their faces. It was the sort of thing I’d do at a con, given two working lallies and a phone. In fact I probably have. I just don’t remember. Scary.
Still, they weren’t the worst. There was The Man Who Farted.
I was caught up in heavy people-traffic so typical of any major convention between panels. Out of some nearby toilets (Which would have been an ideal time, mate) came this guy in t-shirt and tight jeans. He turned into the morass and at exactly that moment let one roar. He seemed as startled as those around him and made haste to escape the crime.
Not an option for ol’ Jimbo. I couldn’t turn the Beast without hitting incomers,couldn’t slow down for fear of some poor wretch behind me banging their shins. My fate was inescapable: a conveyor-belt-slow journey into that acrid epicentre, like a casket into the flame. I even had time to wonder how bad it would smell, how my head would be at exactly ass height and how I regretted not telling family and friends I loved them.
O Fortuna imperatrix mundi I thought (or like to think I thought) as the crowd’s movement came to a standstill due to so many bodies in the packed hallway. I’d stopped where his arse had detonated. My world was flatulence, an eye-stinging dimension of mephitic horror. I breathed through my mouth, hyper-aware that everyone around me might think the fart mine. Worse, they were probably all too woke to say.
Still, there were perks, I won’t lie. With a scooter I didn’t have to queue for the Hugo Awards. You cannot undervalue that. Staff led me along a veranda, parked my ride up and helped me into a seat with oodles of leg space. I was living the dream. A dream mired only slightly by the fact my aisle was the main highway, the very silk road, for aching bladders. Bear in mind this was a three hour show. But, hey, worse crosses to bear. The Man Who Farted for one. And the Hugos were excellent fun.
So were drinks with pals after. By my third long drink (a Finnish speciality) I began to wonder what Finnish law had to say about wheelchair use while under the influence. I recall one of the convention staff asking me if I should be ‘driving that thing’ and I assured him I’d decades experience. Truth be told, I think he’d become concerned after I’d let famed fan artist Smuzz have a bit of a drive around while I went for a slash. Hey, I’d never met the guy before. It’s called networking. Look it up some time.
Occasionally I’d go outside to vape and that’s where I met a wheelchair user by the name of DG. Whereas I was entirely electric both in terms of nicotine and travel, DG was almost exactly the opposite: Marlboroughs and palm-pushing.
“If you can possibly do so,” she said, speaking in general terms, “avoid scooters. Go old school wheelchair. You can turn on a dime with these things and that counts for so much.”
It made sense. With the Beast I was having to plot out entire arcs and trajectories. Pivoting would have been a godsend.
“Old people,” DG said. “They’re friendly when they see you. They get it, I suppose…”
The rest of our toot-time we spoke genially of Game Of Thrones. Fortunate for her the third to last episode hadn’t yet aired. I can bore the world to sleep with my rants over Gendry’s stupid bloody war hammer. Grrr…
The social whirl is a different bird when you’re limited to a travelling chair; I was learning this fast. Sitting around a table with chums was pretty much the same, as you might expect, but hanging out among a standing circle- that staple of any convention- had lost its edge.
You’d think being sat in a circle of chatting standing humans would be almost identical to standing and chatting, but it really is not. The freedom to twist your hips, pivot one foot forwards and lean in to get someone’s attention: these are the unspoken engine parts of a standing party. Each constituant is part of a subtly dextrous whole, a flexing social beast.
Being in a chair throws a spanner in all that, no matter how considerate your comrades. After twenty minutes I got the strange sensation of being a hard lump of undigested food in a straining intestine. Add to that having to get everyone’s attention from below their line of sight and, well, I was finding it difficult to be that giddy, Capote-like social butterfly so fondly regarded in all London’s better salon’s.
Things got worse as everyone drank more. Drunk people can be utterly adorable- certainly all my friends are- but their powers of focus and observation face stiff competition from, say, your average newborn wombat.
One moment I’d be absolutely doted upon by a bunch of wide-eyed, grinning sentimentalists and I’ve no complaint there. The next moment they’d be twenty feet away trying to unfurl a parasol and talking maniacally about novelty fidget spinners. No, don’t get me wrong: I had a great saturday night, a blast. But it also felt like the events of A New Hope as seen from the perspective of R2-D2.
Which (ah, here it comes) brings me to the socio-political bit, at least in regards to conventions.
During the Hugo Awards a few of the acceptance speeches alluded to some lucky moment, like bumping into some publishing nabob at a hotel bar or on the way to a panel. Without that magical moment, it would seem, the award-winning novel/story/podcast/thing would not be on the stage tonight. And fair play, totally. Life is chance, opportunity knocks, O fortuna imperatrix mundi. (Can’t believe I’ve wedged that in twice now…)
But. Sat beside the Beast, foot throbbing, watching the stage, I wondered how many works of art- possibly great art- never found the right home- or any home- because the artist could not stand at that hotel bar, couldn’t make their way with any celerity to that panel. It’s the kind of thought that’ll break you into a cold sweat if you linger on it.
I’m a white able-bodied male (possibly also a douchebag if you’ve read this far, your mileage may vary) so my experience in these things can be tattooed upon a mosquito’s left bollock with room for a foreword, yet I can’t help feeling that, in terms of the barriers that face minorities attending conventions, those faced by access-disabled are the most… strategic. You can be failed by some asshole’s bias if you’re LGBT or POC, say, but if you’ve access issues you can’t even get to that zone in time and space in which to be failed (Within this strategic context, at least, the only thing worse is poverty: you can’t even get to the convention to get to that zone in time and space in which to be failed. But, hey, this is all my hastily-thrown conjecture. Like I say: mosquito, bollock, foreword).
So what’s to be done? Because something should be done, there’s always something to be done. Well, a light Googling shows me there’s a healthy pressure on conventions in the last decade to listen to the access impaired and cater for them. A fine trend indeed and may it always be so.
I’d go one further. Publishing conferences open only to the impaired. A level playing field for networking, with industry movers-and-shakers in attendance, listening to novel pitches and whatever else. Perhaps something like that already exists, but I haven’t heard of it.
Ah. But such thoughts are evaporating from me now like Axe body spray off an unwashed Red Dwarf T-shirt. My leg was a lot better by the Sunday of the convention, the Beast no longer required. As I type this, difficulty with walking has become someone else’s problem, my Saturday in a wheelchair another anecdote. Full douchebag service has been resumed.
One thing comes to me now, however. Something DG said, chain-smoking in her chair on a Helsinki night.
“But look at you. You found you couldn’t walk and yet you’re here, right? You’re not lying in your hotel bed. You solved your problem. Humans are great like that.”
Fair point. And one that can be applied to society as much as an individual.