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Accessibility Studies

Sakura-Con to feature panel on disabilities depicted in the media, hosted by CWU Accessibility Studies

Every spring, thousands of anime fans attend Sakura-Con at Seattle Convention Center. Presented by the Asia Northwest Cultural Education Association, Sakura-Con is the oldest and most well attended anime convention in the Pacific Northwest.  This year, over 20,000 people are expected downtown Seattle  March 19-April 1 with many in "cosplay"--dressed as their favorite characters from their fantasy films and series. Many will participate in the first-ever Moi-même-Moitié fashion show in the US.  Freeway park will be populated with many photo ops. There are many contests, such as costume, AMV (fan music videos), karaoke, and scavenger hunt.

Special guests include voice actors and such animators as Shigefumi Shingaki, the animation director for One Piece, and also known for Dragon Ball GT, Samurai 7, Hikaru No Go, Kancolle, and the long-running series, Doraemon. Attendees can expect dazzling displays of classic swordplay and a well-stocked exhibit hall of games and costumes.  There will e a masquerade ball and special music guest is OKAMOTO’S, a four-piece rock band from Shinjuku, Tokyo.  


Many panels are available with topics about asian culture and history, the techniques of media, and celebrity interviews. Sunday morning, attendees are invited to join the discussion of ways people with disabilities are depicted in media, including anime film, graphic novels, games, and toys. Dr. Naomi Jeffery Petersen, who directs CWU's Accessibility Studies Program will lead the panel. She says the participants will have opportunities to share  their  perspectives and experience.

She hopes the conversation will "help us compile a list of examples that advocate for greater awareness of physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional challenges in everyday life." This will be put to use in another year when the new General Education Program is implemented. 

ASP 187 is one of the many new Freshman Year Special Topics Seminar courses. It's special topic is Freaks, Victims & Heroes: Portrayals of People with Disabilities in Popular Media and Games. The 4-credit course is described in the catalog as "Portrayals of degrees of ability (sensorimotor; cognitive). Physical and social barriers to independent and meaningful life for people with disabilities. The role of accessibility competence in culture and careers. Legislation entitling accessibility in public accommodations."

People with disabilities are a large minority, estimated to be about 20% of the population, and this is increasing as people benefit from better medical care. There is greater awareness thanks to ADA but people with disabilities still experience exclusion due to stigma and ignorance.
Popular media has an important role in this, both perpetuating stereotypes and enlightening people to the realities of the experiences of their conditions. A focus on disability awareness highlights cultural differences regarding individual differences and roles that are assigned to people. In this panel we invite participants to share their experiences but also what they recognize as significant depictions of disability in popular media.
Disabilities have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, sometimes with a simple association with a known medical condition, e.g. the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  In the fantasy genre differences in ability are inherent to the characters, e.g. Powder, Daredeveil, all the Xmen. Any great deviation from the norm renders the character vulnerable to the misunderstandings and malevolence of society at large as well as particular villains, e.g. the Incredibles. It is dismaying to people with disabilities to be reduced to pathetic recipients of charity or who are restricted out of lower expectations (e.g. Finding Nemo) due to conditions that in reality are simply more challenging and complex than most. Awareness of the experiences of people with disabilities is also evident in the fandom of anime and manga. There is even a forum thread that discusses main characters with disabilities:
As Lindwasser ( commented, “Some anime that tackle disability do it with nuance and specificity - if you watch Prince of Tennis, for instance, you're going to learn a lot about Guillain-Barré Syndrome. If you watch Gangsta, you're going to learn something about how real people deal with being deaf. Other anime is more vague about it, giving their characters unspecified injuries or heart problems with symptoms that don't quite add up - but these characters can still tell us important things about the social and emotional implications of disability. All of these characters are an important part of their story, sometimes because of how the show handles their disability, and sometimes because they're just really freakin' awesome characters.” A Silent Voice  is a pretty deep dive into what accommodations are (or aren't) provided to a deaf character.
Recently there have been some inspiring works that illuminate these challenges, such as Mis(h)adra, a graphic novel about an Arab-American student with epilepsy. It is significant because it includes the intersection of cultural differences.  This is why the panel is so important: disabilities are common, and their misunderstandings even more so, resulting in limited opportunities for all people. We all benefit if qualified people can engage in careers and commerce, and we all suffer if we are afraid of being different.
Some examples are counterproductive, such as Yomi, a demon from Yu Yu Hakusho, who grows additional ears to compensate for blindness, playing into the fantasy that there is some mystical balance to be imposed if one has a deficit, instead of focusing on the resilience, creativity, and realism of more credible heroes like Jun Misugi in Capt Tsubasa who adjusts his role without compromising his commitment after heart problems limit his soccer play.
This panel is an opportunity for people with such experiences to voice their perspective. It is also an opportunity to gather lists of resources recommended by people with the authority of their own experience. These resources can then be used for the new academic field of Accessibility Studies, which focuses on environmental readiness for all to participate instead of on individual rehabilitation. 
The panel will be organized with a very brief orientation to the concept of multiple types of disability (physical, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric) and the history and stigma associated with them, and the role of media to both perpetuate stereotypes and enlighten people to the ideals of maximum participation and autonomy for people of any degree of ability.

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