Last year, the science fiction convention Orycon announced a panel on autism (in our world, not in science fiction) that did not include any autistic individuals, though it had plenty of parents. As this is like a LGBTQ panel comprised of straight parents, the Autistic community became obviously troubled. Classic ignorance and ableist tactics ensued. These are already well-documented.
At which point, I thought, gee, if this is coming from a place of ignorance, maybe we can keep it from escalating into anger and ugliness and all end up winning.
I went to the convention site and talked to the directors. We had a civil discussion about civil rights and why the panel had elicited such a negative response from the Autistic community. The panel was cancelled, and I was promised that when planning time came for 2013, the community would be involved.
Unfortunately, some individuals decided to hold the panel anyway. Additionally, bizarre lies were spread within the conference about retaliation by the Autistic community. Not smooth moves for building trust.
The 2013 director, however, was good to her word and met with me and another community rep in January. We talked about autism and science fiction, and got excited about a panel on disability representation in sci-fi. We broke bread together and found common ground.
I also learned that Orycon a closed system, much like a sponsorship-based fraternity. Only members of Orycon are typically allowed on panels, and panels only happen by explicit invite of the presentation committee. The director has little or no control over what is presented, and does not review presentations prior to the convention. There is no mechanism for oversight or external input. Feedback comes only from within.
Which might explain why, several days after another seemingly-successful meeting with a director, my friend and I received an email embedded with deeply ableist assumptions, contradicting our discussion, and stating that if we could come up with "someone who is both on the spectrum and a licensed medical person of some kind, preferably someone who deals with diagnosis issues" they could be on the same panel that caused the problem in 2012. Either the 2013 director is a master of deception, or someone within the closed system of Orycon put pressure on her to parrot their own agenda.
Which puts me, and the community, in a very awkward position.
That diplomacy failed is clear--at least the nice kind of diplomacy where each side engages in mutual perspective-taking.
But what comes next?
To say, "Oh, OK, you win," is not an option. It makes me--all of us who worked on the issue--all of us in the community--complicit in our own oppression. Silence = Compliance.
To continue to encourage systems change from within is not an option. There is no way to penetrate the closed walls of Orycon's administration, at least not without years of infiltration.
Alternative outreach and education is difficult because anything one says or does risks the provocation of rumors and lies from whoever within Orycon has a chip on their shoulder against the Autistic community, and has already demonstrated they find no action too petty. Plus most people don't give a shit about disability rights anyway; they just want their fun annual convention, and they want it unblemished by pesky trivialities like civil rights violations.
So where does this leave us as a community?
What action do we take next?
How can we effect change in a deeply ableist, closed system with significantly more resources and power than most of us have ever known, or will ever know?
In this sense, the Orycon failure is merely an echo of broader civil rights dilemmas we face every day in our lives. It is the privilege of those who do not experience oppression to be able to engage in it without repercussion or guilt for the destruction, despair, and crushing inequity it leaves in its wake.
Where to from here?