Cosplaying with Disabilities: Tips & Tricks for a Successful Con
New York Comic Con is upon us, which means it’s crunch time for cosplayers and “plain clothes” convention-goers alike. Costumes are nearing completion, to-do lists and schedules are being made, and for many a subtle worry has started to kick in. Cosplaying as a person with a disability (mental or physical) or chronic illness can bring about its own unique set of struggles, but with the proper planning an enjoyable (and safe) convention experience is achievable for all!
My name is Lily Archer; this NYCC marks four years since I first entered the cosplay scene, and I am a woman with a disability. It was my personal experience cosplaying with Type 1 Diabetes, PCOS, Hashimoto’s, Scoliosis, Anemia, and the moments of Anxiety and Depression that tagged along as side-effects that drove me to get involved with others in the community who were presenting panels on Cosplaying with Disabilities. I quickly began leading panels of my own, and now I aim to bring this conversation to any con that will have me! The information below is a summary of what I have come to find are the most important topics to remember when looking to attend a convention - and while none of them are revolutionary, sometimes we need to hear these self-care tips repeated to remind ourselves of their importance.
Spoons & Spells - Your Energy Markers
There are many metaphors used to describe the way illness affects energy, the most common of which is called “Spoon Theory.” Coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003, this theory compares the amount of energy a person wakes up with on a given day to a number of spoons. Someone who is able bodied might wake up with 100, where a disabled person might wake up with 75 one day, 35 the next, etc. Everything you do costs spoons, and while you can sometimes borrow against tomorrow or try to stock up, there is fairly little you can do once your number reaches zero.
An alternate theory that makes a bit more sense for the nerds amongst us is to compare energy to spell slots. After each “long rest,” you are supposed to regenerate all of your spell slots, and occasionally “short rests” may help recuperate one or two. These slots and the “spells” or actions you can take to use them are categorized by level and contain everything from getting dressed at lower levels to going to work or the store at a higher level. Some days you may not recover all of your slots when you wake up, and a disabled person may have fewer slots to begin with than someone who is able bodied.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, the basic concept is the same. We only have so much energy in the day, and during a convention it is important to do what we can to make that energy last as long as possible.
Preventative Measures - Research, Hotels, & Travel
Before attending a convention, do your research! Some cons may provide special badges or badge stickers for attendees who require additional accommodations. Ask what they have available and don’t be afraid to request specific accommodations that you may need, such as the ability to exit out of entrance-only doors in the dealer’s room or priority entrance into panel spaces. Make sure you know where the first aid station is before-hand, and make a note of what the staff members are wearing as soon as you arrive. Knowing where to go or who to approach can save valuable time and mental energy during a flare-up or emergency!
It is equally as important to look at the convention center map (especially if one is provided by the con, laying out programing locations) to see where the quiet spaces are for you to step away. Some conventions have designated “Quiet Rooms” for this purpose, while others have manga libraries or cosplay changing rooms. Even if none of those options are available, all con buildings have quiet corners, back hallways, and stairwells that don’t see as much foot traffic as the main walkways. Taking a few minutes throughout the day to step out of the crowds can help to fend off mental health flare-ups and calm encroaching symptoms. For those with physical conditions, stepping away can give you a chance to sit down for a few minutes, do a quick check-in on your symptoms, and treat accordingly.
When it comes to hotel stays, don’t be afraid to ask for an accessible room! These rooms are made for people with disabilities and mobility devices - they are usually closer to elevators, larger, and don’t cost any more than a “regular” room. Having a bit more space also means you can safely keep your mobility aids on the opposite side of the room from any costumes or props (to prevent damage).
If you are rooming with other people - make sure that they know what to do in case of an emergency! This includes walking them through your rescue device(s) upon arrival if needed and having a conversation about it beforehand. You don’t have to share any more than what will keep you safe, but it is important that you share at least that much! If you are worried about how they will respond or that your roommates might be reluctant to provide emergency care, take that as a sign to re-consider what the relationship really means to you, and to them. Their momentary discomfort is far less important than a conversation that could save your life.
Before you start to pack make yourself a few lists! One for each cosplay, one for your medical needs, one for a service animal (if you have one - make sure you check the convention’s rules before you decide to dress them up, by the way, some don’t allow it!), and one for any over the counter remedies you may need. Don’t forget to bring your allergy medication if you have any, as the allergens where you are traveling to may be different from those at home! Always travel with your pills in their original bottles, and bring along a doctor’s note if you are flying and have any devices that may raise suspicion at security.
Preventative Measures - Food
This deserves its own section, because we all need to eat! Before arrival take a look at a convention center map to see where food vendors are located. If you have special dietary needs, check to see if you can get information on what will be available. It’s safe to assume that you won’t have many options within the con itself, so if you do have allergies or intolerances plan to bring along some snacks and food items that you know will not get you sick! Properly fueling your body (which means eating more than bananas and fries all weekend) will help to keep things running internally and fend off flare-ups or energy loss from a poor diet.
Preventative Measures - Cosplay Design
When it comes to comfort in cosplay, it all starts with having a comfortable and supportive base. For those of us who are largely mobile on our feet, this means investing in good and reliable shoes! If you really must wear something incredibly uncomfortable for the sake of accuracy, consider saving that for photo shoots and meet-ups only; when walking around the convention center, switch into something else! Taking care of your feet can do wonders for making your energy last longer and keeping your pain low. For those who aren’t on their feet, the same rule applies! Make sure you are wearing or using things that are comfortable for a long day of use. Adrenaline from being at the con can sometimes overrule other feelings of pain until they reach unmanageable levels, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
For those of us who have more visible aids (whether they be insulin pumps like myself, mobility aids, oxygen tanks, prosthetics, etc.) there are three general schools of thought with how to work these devices into our cosplays:
Hide them completely. Some costumes allow your aid to completely disappear. Embrace the stealth!
Wear them without alteration. If you use a wheelchair, why can’t your character? Embrace what makes you unique!
Incorporate them into it. Build a Mario Kart around your walker, wrap vines around your crutches for Poison Ivy, or put on a mermaid fin while using your chair! Embrace your creativity!
Each of these techniques is completely valid, and no one way is more right than the other! Do what makes you feel good, and embrace what makes your cosplay special!
Make sure that whatever you wear you have somewhere to keep your phone, money, ID, and emergency supplies. You can make this a part of your cosplay by incorporating hidden compartments into props, using a practical bag that matches your character, or with whatever bag you decide to bring with you. Just keep an eye on it if you need to set something down, or hand it off to a friend. (Pro tip: Hoop skirts are great for hiding your things while you pose for pictures! Just put your bag down, step over it, and hide the evidence with your skirt!)
Con-Crunch - Surviving the Week Before the Con
The last thing you want to do before a convention is use all of your spoons or spells up before the weekend has even started by working so hard on a costume that you don’t eat or sleep for days. When you’re deep in crunch mode set alarms on your phone for the things you’re bound to forget - medication, water, food, stretching, etc. Make sure that you take a break every hour to stretch and adjust your posture; this is also a good time to step back and look at your work from a little further away. There’s a “five foot rule” in cosplay that says if you can’t see a mistake in your work from five to eight feet away, no one else at the convention will either. Remember that there is nothing wrong with not finishing something by your initial deadline. Your health will always be more important, and if you’re sleep deprived and flaring up because of how hard you pushed to get something done you won’t have a fun time at the convention anyway! Set goals with your limits in mind, but don’t be afraid to let those goals be flexible.
Attending a convention as a person with chronic illnesses or disabilities isn’t just about surviving the experience, it’s about balancing your spoons and spells so you’re truly able to thrive! With the right preparation before the convention, all that remains is to show up and have fun. As long as you acknowledge what your limits are and plan to accommodate them as best you can, there isn’t anything that being disabled or ill will keep you from within these spaces. It can be so easy to try and do every single thing at a convention (able bodied people do this too!) and then get disappointed when we hit a wall and aren’t able to accomplish it all. We can’t do everything at every con - and at the end of the day it is far more rewarding to count the things that we were able to accomplish than to get upset counting the things that we missed.
I hope that this article has proved useful to you as we prepare for NYCC and all of the cons to follow. Be kind to yourselves, fellow geeks, and if you want to continue this conversation or pick my brain about cosplay design ideas, feel free to reach out! You can find me at www.LilyArcherCreative.com.