When cosplay is done right, it can be one of the most positive artforms in the world. It combines creativity, fashion, design, ingenuity, engineering, stagecraft, performance, and so much more, then wraps them around a fandom. It’s about people coming together to celebrate a world they love, and finding wonderful ways to insert themselves into it. Your age, race, body type, or gender don’t need to be a factor and it doesn’t matter if there are 16 Deadpools or 13 Arya Starks. It’s open to everyone. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. For some disabled cosplayers though, that’s not always the reality.
“Most cosplay contests are held on a raised stage with stairs to get on and off. This is not accessible for a lot of people,” Colleen (@colleen_cosplay), a cosplayer with a degenerative cartilage disorder, tells me. “Smaller cons especially seem to have trouble getting ramps for their contest stage, it's unclear whether this is due to cost, availability, or poor planning, or most likely a combination of the three.”
It isn’t just basic accessibility such as ramps either; the cramped spaces and sometimes unhygienic conditions of many cosplay conventions can also be a barrier for disabled cosplayers. Lea (@celestial_wanderer), an ambulatory wheelchair user and cosplayer praised the attitudes of the staff from her convention experience, but spoke of the increased risks conventions may pose especially in a post-pandemic context. These increased risks include “hundreds of people [in lifts] pressing the same buttons, or lots of people crammed into a small space, [which] could be seen as too risky a way to spread infections.”
As well as the infrastructure of conventions, the attitudes of able bodied cosplayers/convention guests can also be a limiting factor. “Saying you support disabled cosplayers is a world away from actively doing something to create greater accessibility,” Lea says.“I know photographers have been put off shooting with me because of [my disability], whether because they thought the wheelchair would have to be in shot or some other reason I'm not sure. At the other end of the spectrum, some able-bodied cosplayers have gushed about what an inspiration I am. While well-intentioned, this is incredibly patronising.”
Lea also spoke about negative experiences while cosplaying within the Doctor Who franchise, where patrons suggest she should play a Dalek or Davros, because of her chair. “Sometimes it can feel like I'm reduced to just my wheelchair, as if that's my main characteristic. And while all these things aren't intended maliciously, they certainly have a negative impact on me.”
Meanwhile, Colleen, who walks with the aid of crutches, had similar experiences. “Every convention I attend, I get rude and invasive comments, stares, ableist remarks. I honestly feel that in nearly all of these situations, people are not intending to be rude or hurtful. These people just have a natural curiosity and don’t know of a polite way to express it, which is why learning about disability is so important! In the cosplay community, accuracy to a character or cosplay has always been praised. This idea of focusing on accuracy has only intensified comments such as, ‘Why is Supergirl on crutches, did she get hit by Kryptonite?’, or ‘Isn’t it pitiful for a strong character like Supergirl to use crutches?’”.
Despite some negative comments while cosplaying, Colleen was keen to point to all of the positive aspects of her time at conventions too. “Even though every con has had a little bit of its own ableist experiences for me, please don’t overlook the truly good and kind people out there. Complete strangers that helped me navigate con and offered me a seat. The con staff that patiently stood by to personally help me safely up the stairs and onto the cosplay stage. The cosplay judges that personally took time out of their busy day to absolutely ensure I had the proper accommodations for the cosplay competition. There are some kind and welcoming people in the cosplay community who are super accepting and supportive!”
It’s clear that, despite the bad experiences from convention organisation or hurtful comments, the joy of cosplay is immovable. With that in mind, both Colleen and Lea were keen to offer advice to other disabled people looking to cosplay, who might at first find the thought of it daunting.
“Honestly, just pick a character or costume you like and go for it. There's no more reason that you shouldn't cosplay than there is anyone else,” Lea says, “And importantly - don't feel like you have to choose a character that ‘fits’ with your disability. If you want to, great, but it's not a requisite. Also don't feel the need to incorporate any aid you have into it: again if you want to turn your chair into the Iron Throne, awesome, but it's not a necessary part of your cosplay. Do whatever you're comfortable with.”
Meanwhile, Colleen shared some advice on how she built up her confidence, and hoped that other disabled cosplayers would be able to do the same. “It takes a while to build up confidence as a disabled cosplayer. Realize that confidence in yourself while using mobility aids will not manifest overnight. It’s okay to feel nervous or scared. I started using my mobility aids with original design cosplay concepts. Cosplay as your OC, D&D character, or any original concept. Then it's okay if your mobility aids aren’t ‘accurate to your character’. Nobody will know that your elf princess doesn’t canonically use forearm crutches. This really negates any of those rude comments.”
Colleen also spoke about using her aids as part of her cosplay, for logistical reasons as well as confidence based ones, “Decorate your mobility aids! I made entire cosplay decorations just for my mobility aids to match my cosplay! This makes your mobility aids feel like a piece of the cosplay and encourages you to use them. You wouldn’t want to forget a piece of your cosplay in the hotel room! So don’t forget your mobility aids either because you need them.”
Cosplay is supposed to be welcoming for all, and while there are a lot of disabled cosplayers thriving, it’s clear that conventions could do more, and that everyone in the community needs to be more accepting. Hopefully we’ll see the needs of everyone taken into account in our post-pandemic world.