When our news correspondent David Allkins, who has Asperger’s syndrome and communication difficulties, isn’t interviewing politicians and composing his video reports, he is a keen gamer and fan of science fiction.

He recently attended science fiction and fantasy convention Nine Worlds, and found that accessibility and disability were hot topics for 2015.

Recently, I attended the science-fiction and fantasy convention Nine Worlds 2015 in London, which is a meeting-up point for fans of the genre.

I should start by saying that the convention made great efforts to be accessible to a wide range of people. Extensive accessibility information about the venue and neighbouring hotels was provided ahead of time on their website and, when you arrived, there was seating reserved for people with mobility issues around the edges of each area.

Attendees also had the option of wearing three different colours of badges to indicate how they preferred others to approach or interact with them:

  • Red badges were labelled: ‘Please don’t talk to me unless I talk to you first or in an emergency’.
  • Yellow badges read: ‘Please don’t talk to me unless I know you, talk to you first or in an emergency’.
  • Blue badges carried the message: ‘I’d like it if you would start a conversation with me’.

The convention featured discussion panels on topics such as writing and television programmes.  There were two panels in particular that caught my interest.

Disability-friendly games development

The first was called ‘Access all events – disability, games and good design’ and focused on how we can make video games that are accessible to everybody.

According to government statistics, 18% of people in England have a disability, and this figure is only taking into account those people who define themselves as disabled. It is important that all of these people can access the same types of leisure activities as everyone else – video games included.

Games designer Ian Hamilton began by describing his work with CBeebies, where he creates games for children with cerebral palsy, making the point that gaming can build engagement and improve socialisation, while also providing access to wider culture.

Colour blindness also came under discussion. Apparently 8% of male gamers are colour blind. The video game Candy Crush, which relies on the connection between different coloured and shaped icons, used to be accessible to people with colour blindness up until a particular stage where icons were distinguished solely by colour, when they had to stop playing. This was a fault with accessibility that was fixed in future editions of the game.

Accessibility tester Hannah Bunce explained that, in games with dialogue, subtitles can often be problematic. Key adjustments game designers can make is to create contrasting coloured subtitles to help distinguish which character is speaking, and make sure the text is big enough, and remains on screen for long enough, for all people to read.

Games developer Lynsey Graham talked about controllers. A key feature of accessibility is being able to tailor what the game controls do to make them easier to use. A physical disability, for instance, shouldn’t be a barrier to game play if the control pad is well designed.

Finally, talk turned to role-playing games, which often require the player to make multiple decisions and adjust to a lot of changes as the game progresses. This can be difficult or stressful for people with autism or learning disabilities. The good news is that titles such as Mass Effect 3 now have modes that mean the player just can play the game as a straight story, without having to do this.  It was agreed by the panel that such accessibility is easier to incorporate from the start of development.

Disability and the apocalypse

The second panel that I attended was a discussion of the portrayal of disabled people in books and films set following the end of the world (as we know it).

The first subject on the table was the prevalence of stereotypes around people with disabilities. Anybody with a mental health difficulty is considered dangerous and villains like Captain Hook often have a physical disability to show they are evil; if the hero has a disability, however, it is more likely to be portrayed as a super-power.

The panellists – depressingly – agreed that if a film narrative involves a choice between saving somebody in a wheelchair or a dog, the animal is the most likely to be saved.

Caitlin Blanchard, blogger at www.incaseofsurvival.com, pointed out that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ relates to those who are best suited to a certain environment, not necessarily the biggest or the strongest. She also made the valid point that people with disabilities have been able to survive in difficult situations in the past, such as in countries that are currently war zones.

Discussion then turned to recent films with disabled characters in lead roles, such as Mad Max: Fury Road’s heroine Imperator Furiosa, who has an artificial left limb.

The famous novel The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham deals with the mass blinding of the world. Author Janet Edwards highlighted the fact that this scenario gives an advantage to people who are already blind, and made the compelling closing statement that what we think of as the apocalypse would cause disability to become the norm among the people who survived anyway.

Both of these panels made interesting points in terms of accessibility and fiction. Overall, I feel that the Nine Worlds convention is an encouraging step towards extending accessibility to people in terms of both the content available and how the event was organised.

David Allkins, news correspondent (and sci-fi fan).