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Comic-Con’s Disabled Fans

Above: The Comic-Con regular with a dragon head on his wheelchair.

Audio

Aired 7/25/11

Superheroes and fans have packed up and left town, as another Comic-Con comes to a close. The world’s largest pop culture convention drew big crowds again this year, including many men and women with disabilities. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says comics’ relatable characters and Comic-Con’s disabled services are part of the appeal.

Comic-Con regular Joy Banks and her children, along with Angel, her service dog.
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Above: Comic-Con regular Joy Banks and her children, along with Angel, her service dog.

There are always lines at Comic-Con. Lines to get in, lines to see the "Twilight" panel, lines to play the newest video game. Lines are a part of life at this convention devoted to comics, movies and all things pop culture. But in recent years, even the lines at disabled services are long.

Joy Banks waits to register at disabled services with a companion, who she introduces. "This is Angel, my service dog." Angel is a little restless. Banks says she's bored and asks her family, "How long have we been waiting here, an hour and a half?"

Banks, 50, has been attending Comic-Con for nine years. She uses a wheelchair because she has hip problems and emphysema. She says Comic-Con really caters to people with special needs. "They have a rest area so when we’re tired we can come over here and rest, which helps a lot because it’s a very big venue, and it’s hard for all of us to get around."

The disabled services area at Comic-Con.
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Above: The disabled services area at Comic-Con.

A line at disabled services waiting for registration confirmation.
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Above: A line at disabled services waiting for registration confirmation.

A young woman uses a fake heart as her costume prop at Comic-Con.
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Above: A young woman uses a fake heart as her costume prop at Comic-Con.

Comic-Con doesn’t track the number of disabled who attend every year, but spend just one day walking the convention hall and you’ll see plenty of wheelchairs moving through the notoriously large crowds. Bill Cademy says that’s the hardest part. He presses a button on his wheelchair. "This little "beep beep" on the scooters, no one pays attention to it. It’s too quiet. This year I decided to try the bicycle bell and it seems to work. It worked last night anyway, like magic!"

Comic-Con set up disabled services in 1988. It rents wheelchairs and provides cold storage for medicine. If a disabled person needs a helper or attendant, that person can attend Comic-Con for free.

Doug Lathrop is in a wheelchair and has been going to Comic-Con for 15 years. He brings a friend he’s known since junior high to help him. Lathrop explains: "It’s good having someone, I get tired of having to push this thing around so he’ll push me around for awhile and there are other people who really need a helper and need an attendant for various things."

Lathrop saw his disability, a bone condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, portrayed in a superhero movie from 2000 called "Unbreakable," starring Samuel L. Jackson. He laughs, "Yeah, they got some of it right but most of it they got wrong. Particularly since, you know, I don’t know anybody with it that looks like Samuel L. Jackson."

Professor Xavier of the popular "X-Men" franchise is in a wheelchair. The superhero Daredevil is blind. Comic-Con spokesperson David Glanzer says the world of comics often celebrates difference. He says, "when you deal with comic books, fantasy and all that, somebody in a wheelchair isn’t all that different when you talk about people who have two heads or multiple limbs or is green in color or whatever."

Lathrop says his interest in comic books and science fiction started when he was young. "I had a very active fantasy life when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals and I couldn’t do a lot of active, physical stuff so I spent a lot of time at home and I read a lot."

Lathrop says he’s noticed more disabled people coming to Comic-Con. Fans will wait in line for hours to get into Comic-Con’s popular panel events like the one for Harry Potter, or HBO’s "True Blood." There’s a separate line for the disabled to wait in, and Lathrop says now those lines are really long. He explains, "Last year, I tried to get in the panel for 'Glee' and we got there and the line was so long there was no way. We didn’t even bother getting in line because we weren’t going to get in."

Comic-Con spokesperson Glanzer says, "I don’t know if we have a special appeal to the disabled but I think that those who come to Comic-Con, find an accepting environment. And that is true for all of those people who didn’t feel they fit in quite well in the real world, well for four days out of the year, at Comic-Con, you can not only fit in, but you know be the cool people."

I’ve often heard about a man who comes to Comic-Con every year and outfits his wheelchair with a large dragon head. This year I finally saw him, moving through the crowds, but because of that dragon head, he had to stop every few feet so someone could take his picture.

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