San Japan's magic is inclusivity

Panel on Cosplay with disabilities

For Adrianna and her service dog, Ms. Peaches, the best part of San Japan 2019 was the SJ Cares team who serve fans with disabilities.

“SJ Cares people have really been awesome,” Adrianna said. “They let you know the best place to go to the bathroom with your (service) dog.”

Now in its 12th year, San Japan, a homegrown celebration of anime, manga and Japanese pop culture has more panel discussions, autograph signings, games and other events than ever before.

But one thing just keeps getting better: an effort to make sure disabled fans have a safe, accessible place to fully enjoy themselves.

One panel discussion called “Cosabled” focused on cosplay while disabled. The panel organizer, McKenna Sawyer, has had severe migraines and blackouts since childhood. She finally was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, where the brain has a problem processing visual information.

The Goliad, Texas native wears Irlen lenses, which are colored overlay filtered lenses. They help Irlen patients such as Sawyer to dampen the effect of bright lighting, and to improve their depth perception.

Another panelist, Cheri, explained she has been coping with low vision since childhood, but her vision had deteriorated during her teens. She was diagnosed with chronic diplopia — double vision caused by misalignment of the eyes.

Cheri has undergone several eye surgeries to improve her vision, but she has little to no peripheral vision and uses a seeing eye cane to get around.

Adrianna, also on the panel, talked about her struggles with panic attacks and severe anxiety. She recalled having nervous tics in which she harmed herself by making cuts in her skin.

The women said they enjoy cosplay and make preparations with their own special needs in mind when they attend an event such as San Japan.

The panel offered helpful tips to the audience members, some of whom shared stories of their own physical and emotional challenges.

The panelists’ tips for cosplay while disabled include:

  • Don’t push yourself beyond your limits and do not get overwhelmed
  • Go with a friend or family member and share emergency contact information with that person should something go wrong at the event
  • Pack back-up aids in case their equipment becomes cumbersome or if a quick fix is needed on site
  • Your cosplay should be easy to use and wear and something that does not consume much of your physical or mental energy

The panelists also encouraged contacting the organizing staff ahead of an event to let them know of their disability and to see what services are available to disabled attendees.

“Always email the care staff beforehand so they know what to expect,” Sawyer added.

This is where San Japan Cares comes in. It’s a small but informed portion of event staff who try to prepare and serve disabled fans, regardless of their disability.

signs to San Japan Cares

Adrianna said the San Japan Cares staffers strive to locate quiet, safe places around the convention facilities.

“Sometimes you just have to get away and calm down,” Adrianna added.

San Japan Cares has evolved in recent years as a pilot program, thanks largely to the work of Lori McCarthy.

First experiencing San Japan years ago while cosplaying, McCarthy found the convention a challenging endeavor given her own hearing impairment.

McCarthy kept contacting San Japan staff, giving her thoughts on helping disabled fans and ensuring all attendees know the etiquette, such as how to act around a service dog on the convention floor.

Organizers urged McCarthy to volunteer in this area. She eventually was named manager for what is now San Japan Cares.

“It’s a passion,” McCarthy said of her role.

SJ Cares does not have service dogs or mobility devices on loan at the event, but helps attendees with a service dog, wheelchair, cane or crutches to have a trouble-free visit.

SJ Cares offers disabled attendees ribbons that permit them preferred seating, based on their needs. Attendees who are unable to stand for long periods of time are able to seek help in line for an autograph session or some other activity.

Attendees can also request assistance from a volunteer in getting to and from panels and main events. Staffers carry small green flags and walk throughout the convention floors, making themselves available for attendees who may need their aid.

“All we’re doing here is flagging you down and let you know we’re here and what services we have,” she added.

SJ Cares makes modifications and additions every year, and is open to feedback and ideas for improvement.

McCarthy said she hopes to create a Braille map of convention facilities in time for the 2020 San Japan. She also envisions developing more quiet, safe spaces across the convention facilities.

Back at the "Cosabled" panel, a few audience members said they have gotten disheartening remarks from others suggesting they can’t fully portray a character in cosplay.

The panelists rejected such negativity, saying all fans should freely cosplay in a way that suits them best.

“Your safety and comfort are way more important than anything else,” Adrianna said.

“The point is just to have fun,” Sawyer added.