Actress Nichelle Nichols (R) and son Kyle Johnson attend the Nichelle Nichols Finale Celebration during 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con at Los Angeles Convention Center on Dec. 5, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

Large audience events made a slow return to in-person formats as pandemic restrictions eased in 2021, but the emergence of COVID-19 variants like the highly infectious Delta and Omicron and lower-than-hoped-for vaccination rates mean that virtual events may very well be a permanent part of the landscape. This is welcome news for members of the disability community, who have advocated all along for virtual access to events, health care, school, and work. And while many events are attempting a “rush back to normalcy,” disability advocates are adamant that there’s no need to return to strictly in-person attendance, especially when doing so will once again raise inequitable barriers to entry. 

The possibilities for wider participation in virtual events, particularly for people from marginalized communities, was apparent at comic book, gaming, and other science fiction/fantasy conventions (cons), many of which had to pivot last minute to all-virtual formats in 2020 and remained virtual in 2021. Commonly billed as celebratory and entertaining spaces, cons have a long history of sexual harassment targeting women and other marginalized genders, racist hostility—particularly toward Black cosplayers—and lack of consideration for the needs of disabled attendees. The pandemic, however, created an opportunity for cons to be more accessible on these fronts. Hosting virtual events made it more possible to alleviate several factors that often prevent marginalized fans from fully enjoying their con experiences.  

“Virtual events have been a blessing, allowing me to attend cons in a way I couldn’t possibly handle before,” said André J. Daughtry, a Black gaming streamer on Twitch and disability advocate. For Daughtry, attending cons in person was usually a “mixed bag” due to con staff and volunteers being disorganized and ill-equipped to assist disabled attendees, as well as having to navigate unpleasant interactions in physically cramped quarters.

Erin Hawley, a Latina gaming accessibility consultant who often experiences ableist attitudes and assumptions about mobility and communication, had similar difficulties, particularly around auditory and mobility issues in large crowds and sexist behavior from con attendees. By contrast, virtual cons allowed her to engage both socially and professionally with other attendees from the comfort of her own bedroom. 

“[Virtual access] means I could literally be heard,” she said. “It meant I was able to network effectively. It meant meeting people from all over the world. It dramatically changed my relationships with conventions, which is invaluable to my work.”

Intersections and barriers

For many people like Hawley and Daughtry, it’s been frustrating seeing how quickly different industries moved to offer virtual access to events, employment, health care, and other areas when it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon. That speed and willingness to embrace virtual and hybrid events made it clear that resistance to making those accommodations available for disabled people had nothing to do with a lack of technology and resources. Instead, it revealed a deliberate unwillingness to change until there was no choice and everyone, not just disabled people, faced difficulties in accessing things in person. And thanks to the early work of disabled activists, tools enabling virtual access to events are being used more than ever.

“Disabled people are innovators because we have to be, so we’ve been laying the groundwork forever, and now everyone can reap the benefits,” Hawley said. “Most accessibility is due to our influence, including the push for virtual events, ways to thrive in relative isolation, and staying connected online. Disabled people have been quarantined and isolated well before the pandemic because of inaccessibility and ableism.”

Opportunities to form community connections and new relationships are often a primary selling point of events like cons, but for disabled nerds like Hawley and Daughtry, in-person cons have been less than ideal venues for dispelling feelings of isolation and disconnection. When factoring in additional stressors like the harassment they often face for their race, gender, and disabilities, it’s not unusual for them to decide the emotional and physical tolls aren’t worth the often considerable financial costs of attending, which means sacrificing opportunities for professional visibility and social connection that abled attendees take for granted. 

Hawley noted how imperative it is for con organizers to understand the value of virtual spaces, if not for how they can benefit attendees like her, then at least as a way for events to remain viable, particularly in a pandemic. Virtual events can increase both reach and attendance, which can help events recover after more than a year of lost profit. For example, virtual events remove some of the obstacles and stress that come with traveling, such as financial barriers, potentially traveling through areas hostile to BIPOC and gender non-conforming folks, finding appropriate lodging, transportation to and from the event venue, and uncertainty if venues can meet accessibility needs.

Virtual engagement also opens more avenues for people to be a part of the conversation on their terms, at their own comfort levels. Chatting through text in moderated virtual spaces rather than in person can mean less anxiety and more social ease for some. There’s no likelihood of being trapped by an unsafe person in a physical space, more control over who attendees can interact with or avoid, text and video records of unacceptable speech, and ending participation is as simple as switching off a device. That additional degree of control and oversight for attendee interactions and the sense of safety it can confer can be very appealing, especially for marginalized people. 

Limitations in virtual space

Despite the many advantages offered by virtual events, Hawley cautioned against the temptation to view virtual access as an automatic fix for inequitable barriers to entry. While there’s less risk of physical harassment, she pointed out how much of the harassment she’s received—cyberstalking, sexually inappropriate emails, mocking her disabilities and identity as a Latina—has happened online. The idea that virtual formats remove the possibility of harassment entirely is a dangerous assumption, so the need for adequate training for staff and clear, concrete rules for conduct remains. Event organizers and moderators need to respond immediately and decisively to harassing language and online behavior, which is no less damaging in virtual space than in physical space.

“We have to remember that harassment also takes verbal and written [form] which can still happen at virtual cons,” Halwey said. “And online harassment could always escalate to in-person, especially if someone works in the same industry as you.”

Hawley advised that, even with their advantages, virtual events still need to keep accessibility in mind, including hiring sign language interpreters; providing captions for all videos, whether live or recorded; reminding featured guests to speak directly into their microphones to ensure clear sound; and offering tools and resources for attendees who may not be fluent in English. For Hawley, changing attitudes and challenging ableism is an essential first step to making cons inclusive and accessible for everyone.

“Hire a dedicated accessibility advocate, or even better, a few advocates to work with you to ensure [that cons] are as accessible as possible,” Hawley stressed. “When hiring people, make sure to include people with different disabilities.”  

Whether a con is in person, virtual, or hybrid, Daughtry would also like to see event organizers go further by considering who is excluded and how to provide access at the very beginning of the planning process, rather than treating inclusion and equity as an afterthought. 

“I hope they take into consideration talking to and including the disability community in the decision making and planning process,” he said.

Evolving events in person and online

With so many factors at play about when and how in-person events can be conducted, virtual and hybrid events offer the chance to continue strengthening the cultural shift toward greater access and inclusion. After nearly two years of the pandemic, there are plenty of lessons that can be applied to further refining event planning and the use of virtual spaces. For instance, Hawley noted how there’s still room to improve event programming to encourage more interactive engagement among remote attendees. 

“Streaming different panels online, allowing people watching from home to pose questions to the panel, finding ways to have people speak on panels virtually … A lot can be done,” she said.

Daughtry acknowledged the desire many people have to return to in-person events, but reiterated the need for previously in-person only events to retain the virtual elements they pivoted to during the height of the pandemic. Despite the many opportunities virtual access has made available, virtual-only events can still be exclusionary as not everyone has access to broadband services or personal electronic devices necessary to participate remotely. Hybrid formats, Daughtry argued, will benefit events by giving attendees more choices, “allowing those who want to attend in person to visit the physical venues and stream the event for those who wish to stay at home.”  

And hovering ever present in the background is the ongoing reality of the pandemic. Mingling shoulder-to-shoulder with large numbers of people in tightly packed indoor spaces already made in-person cons and other events something of a risk, especially to those with chronic health conditions. Daughtry remembered his unease regarding the hygienic practices (or lack thereof) of patrons, which takes on additional significance given the ongoing (and sometimes violent) refusal to wear masks and get vaccinated among the general public, and how those sentiments dangerously interact with anti-Blackness, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, and other forms of bigotry.

Further complicating matters is the growing normalization of expecting attendees to disclose and share their vaccination status in order to gain entry to events. While disability activists encourage vaccination as a means to control the virus and protect those with higher degrees of risk, the fact remains that access to the vaccine remains inequitable, particularly for those who can’t take time off from work for appointments or recovery time, have difficulty accessing vaccination locations, or live in under-resourced communities. Additionally, there are those who can’t get vaccinated at all due to medical conditions. 

It’s a complex issue that Hawley acknowledges can still exclude the same people that safety measures like vaccination requirements are supposed to protect. Daughtry shared similar concerns, but with the caveat he felt that vaccination requirements for attendance would be exclusionary for non-hybrid events. 

These competing priorities are exactly why disability activists are demanding their seats at the tables and the inclusion of their perspectives as events, workplaces, and other institutions consider how to shape their policies and approaches to virtual access. There’s a real fear among disabled people that a “return to normalcy” means being relegated to invisibility and losing the grounds they’ve gained in the fight against inaccessibility. For nerds like Hawley and Daughtry, the participation of disabled and other marginalized people who will be directly impacted by decisions around accessibility is essential to creating the welcoming and integrated spaces that cons say they’re striving to be. 

The pandemic forced organizers to not only acknowledge, but also to begin fully utilizing available technology to provide more avenues to social and professional interactions outside of in-person formats. The last nearly two years have proven how technology is only as innovative as our imagination, creativity, and willingness permit. For those who support expanding equitable access to social and professional spaces, now is the time to dream big and push hard so that inclusion and accessibility aren’t left behind because of societal resistance to doing things in a new way.  

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...