An Open Letter to Vendors at PAX South

Dear Vendors:

PAX South 2016 just concluded in San Antonio, Texas.  This event only happens once per year, and draws people from all over the country (and in some cases, the world) to engage in their passion for gaming.  But PAX South isn’t just an event for video game enthusiasts; in fact, PAX South has evolved to include a larger share of tabletop games than the other PAX events when one compares the percentage of exhibition space and usage of the table top free play library with the other PAX events held worldwide (PAX East, PAX West – formerly known as PAX Prime, and PAX Australia) (Source: Preliminary data published by PAX tabletop organizers days after PAX South 2016 concluded).  However, this is not to suggest that video games are any less important at South. Anyone who spent any amount of time in the Expo Hall saw just how much focus there is on electronic games at this event.

As busy as you vendors were during the event, you may not have noticed something I saw right away. Maybe the reason why I noticed is because I am disabled and sometimes need to use assistive devices. Maybe the reason why you did not seem to notice is because you overlooked it. Whatever the reason, I saw a significant portion of attendees in wheelchairs and using assistive devices.  But I also noticed something else:  For the most part, your booths were not set up to accommodate people with disabilities who use assistive devices. One booth for a major audio retailer had carpeting which was loose, making it very difficult to get any traction in my wheelchair. Also, the products on display were too high up to be easily seen by someone in a wheelchair.  Furthermore, the items were so close together in some areas in that exhibition space that one could not navigate a wheelchair, roller, walker, or other assistive device between them.

One booth for an extremely popular fighting video game franchise was impossible for those using assistive devices to navigate. Bays where attendees could try out the game were set up in such a way that only those standing upright could access the controls. They were bolted down, classic arcade style.  I tried to play the game, but could not reach the controls well, and definitely could not see the buttons.  I was reaching up over my head to play.  At this same booth, attendees could enter a tournament to play against each other – but only if they were physically capable of climbing steps onto a raised platform where the tournament was held. I did not see any ramps that would allow a disabled person using an assistive device to access the platform.

A large exhibition area for a popular computer processor company had several computers set up so that attendees could use computers containing their processors and see how well they processed their favorite PC games and websites. Unfortunately, all the computers were up high and attendees climbed up on bar stools to access them.  I did not see any computers low enough that one could access them from a wheelchair.

And it wasn’t just the set up of the booths that was frustrating.  I was virtually ignored at all but two of the booths I visited in the Expo Hall, even when I directly addressed a worker asking for assistance with a product.  It was like I was invisible.  The only two booths that interacted with me were smaller gaming and educational booths.  They were the only ones who seemed to see me as a person.

I am not the only one who noticed.  I had conversations with many other attendees who used assistive devices.  Out of all the people I talked to (and there were too many to count over the three days), only one person had a positive experience with a major retailer bringing her a wireless device that was not bolted down so she could try out their product.

Didn’t you realize where you were? Do you know NOTHING about the make up of San Antonio, Texas?  We are known as Military City, USA.  There are Joint Military Bases all over the city, not to mention the major military medical center located right here.  According to its website, it is the busiest medical facility in the Department of Defense.  Think about that for a minute.  Do you have any idea how many wounded warriors are treated here, and how many disabled service members retire to this region due to the warm climate and access to health care? Do you not realize that many service members are gaming enthusiasts? In fact, the U.S. military uses video games to train soldiers.  Therapists often prescribe video games as treatment for PTSD and to help veterans (disabled or not) cope with civilian life. A major charity mentioned in one of the cited articles, Operation Supply Drop, was even at PAX South taking donations and spreading word about its cause – to send digital gaming items to military personnel in war zones, hospitals, and veterans centers.  How ironic, then, that there was so little accommodation for the disabled by vendors.

Even if you weren’t aware of the number of disabled former military members in San Antonio, did you even look at the demographics here? Did you notice how many disabled persons reside in San Antonio?  According to InfoPlease, San Antonio has 25,806 disabled young persons aged 5-20.  How many of these children are gaming enthusiasts who have parents who buy them games?  San Antonio has 141,640 persons aged 21-64 with a disability.  That is a lot of potential revenue you completely ignored when designing and setting up your booths and spaces in the Expo Hall.  That is a lot of revenue you won’t get if your booth workers ignore the disabled attendees outright.

To be fair, it wasn’t just gaming vendors who blew it on this one.  The food vendors also had an obvious lack of planning for persons using assistive devices to attend the event.  Items placed too high for those in wheelchairs to reach, or having to reach way over other things to get to food items – a veritable nightmare for someone with balance issues.  Then there were the cash registers themselves.  They were placed too closely together for people to comfortably walk between the cashier stations, much less roll an assistive device through.  There was a lack of tables nearby at which one could sit to eat the food they purchased, as well.  The entire set up of the food court was a nightmare for anyone with a disability that affects their mobility.

I would, however, like to point out that Penny Arcade, the organization that puts on the different PAX events, was very accommodating and had extreme awareness of issues affecting the disabled.  From making accommodations for those working the event who are disabled (full disclosure – I was one of them), to training the workers to be on the lookout for those with both visible and invisible disabilities and how to help, the staff at PA was amazing.  I only wish the vendors had been as accommodating and aware.

Please do not consider this letter as an attack.  Look on it instead as an opportunity to do better in the future.  Do not ignore the needs of those with disabilities who want to experience your products in such a venue.  If you make accommodations for us, we will respond in a positive way.  Hire a reputable ADA compliance specialist to help you design at least one or two areas in your exhibition booths to accommodate those of us with mobility disabilities.  Heck, if you just rent a wheelchair or other assistive device and try to make your way through your own booths, you will notice right away what works and does not.

There is a large market of disabled gamers waiting for you all to wake up and realize we are here and have money to spend.  If you are a company that makes accommodations for us, we will respond positively.  If you cannot justify doing it on a purely humanitarian level, then justify it this way:  Just how much money did you miss out on at this ONE event because those of us with disabilities couldn’t get to your products to try them?  As word spreads that your booths are accommodating to us, more of us will attend events like this and spend money.  How much revenue are you missing because you are too blind to see how your current set up acts as a barrier to our spending our money on your products?


A Disabled Gaming Enthusiast