How Accessible Is Your LGS?
I'm Ben Thapa, and I play EDH and other games weekly with my family and friends. I'm also a deaf Nepali-American lawyer who works on disability- and accessibility-related issues. In that vein, I've noticed some accessibility issues in EDH, and I'd like to talk about them.
Accessibility is a concept that has evolved over the last sixty years, and in general, I sum it up as "changing things to reduce obstacles to make it easy enough to get to this place, use this thing, and/or experience what it is". There are strong elements of inclusion, of being aware of what others may need, finding ways to provide workable solutions, and affirming "Yes, we want you around, and we're going to re-make the environment to make it easier for that to happen."
EDH in general is a multi-player, multi-hour endeavor with elements of table communication, visual presentation of board states, and complex decisions that hinge critically on timing. This may not match up perfectly with how people can function, and sometimes the spaces in which we play affect that match-up.
Do me a favor: keep track of how many of these questions you say "No", "I don't know", or "Eeeeeuuuhhh, maybe" to:
- Is there accessible public transportation or are there accessible parking spaces1 near where you play?
- Is there a path to the door that is wide and free of stairs and/or obstructions like signs, bumps, potholes, cracks, tables, chairs, head-high air conditioners, standing water, snow, ice, etc.?
- Are there any high-visibility signs about accessibility, welcoming service animals, or using Braille?
- Are LGS staff trained on how to welcome and deal with service animals in the store?
- Is it easy for someone pushing a stroller, delivery cart, or using a wheelchair to get to and through the doors?
- Are the acoustics decent?
- Are the LGS staff trained in how to create language access or assist people who use languages other than English if needed?
- Are the flickering, dim, and/or burnt out lights taken care of?
- Can people see across tables and across rooms easily?
- Can a person using a wheelchair, pushing a stroller, or using a delivery cart get through the space easily?
- Are some of the tables high enough for a person using a wheelchair to roll their knees under?
- Are the tables and chairs sturdy, yet able be moved around some?
- Are there any cushions or booster seats available?
- Can the temperature of the spaces be adjusted upon request?
- Is the bathroom clean, well-lit, stocked up, easy to get to, and easy to move around in?
- If a public space or LGS, is there a changing station for infants in the bathroom?
- Do the fire alarms make noise and flash light?
- If a public space or LGS, do emergency evacuation plans exist? If so, do they include specifically ensuring the evacuation and safety of people with disabilities?
- Are official announcements made in audio and visual forms?
- Is the website accessible?
- Does the group or location culture allow for a person to easily ask for a card to be read or explained?
- Are regular breaks built into event schedules and actually provided?
- If there is snow and/or ice, is there swift and regular clearance of the snow and/or ice, and is the clearing being done in a way that keeps all pathways and spaces open?
- Are people allowed to scoop easily and smoothly?
This isn't a gotcha quiz designed to make someone feel awful or inadequate. I am writing this to describe to people what the physical structure of a welcoming place looks like, feels like, and how it can be possible to change things for a better and adjustable experience. If you gave many "No" answers, here's an opportunity to start changing the environment to get to more "Yes" answers.
Even if these changes are done in increments, they're worth it in the long term. Each obstacle in the environment a person encounters is a point at which a person can decide that they want out. Cumulatively, these obstacles become enduring barriers to access and participation. Addressing these obstacles creates lasting and sustainable quality of life improvements that can be reliefs to experience.
Our physical spaces have huge impacts on our comfort levels. Most of us put time, money, and effort into shaping our homes, workspaces, and other places to better fit us. We get comfy couches, use supportive chairs, change the lighting from room to room, get flatware and dishes that fit our hands, use pillows that fit our sleep style, and outgrow/downsize homes. We wear glasses, orthotics, prosthetics, hearing aids, and use screen readers. We take medicine to help our bodies do certain things. We layer up/remove clothing or adjust thermostats. These changes are ones we make to ourselves and our home or office environments in a collective sense all the time. There's a similar level of adjustments that we can make to the spaces where we gather - whether a home, a public space, or an LGS - to make it easier for people to get in the doors, get their needs met, buy stuff, play games, and build a great community.
The first need is safety. Our safety, especially in case of an emergency, is something that people with disabilities consider more than the average person. I have heard stories along the lines of "I won't go there because there's a chance I'll get stuck in an elevator and I only have so much time before I need my medicine or to get to the bathroom." or "There's no parking spaces nearby, the snow piles too high, and/or the sidewalks are so tough to navigate that I avoid that whole area because I could get stuck, thrown from my wheelchair, hit by a car." Being able to freely come and leave is critical to any game and space. This must be a bedrock-level consideration. Having to worry constantly about traveling somewhere, getting out, or getting left behind is tiresome and frustrating. We as a society do not do a great job of setting a "default standard" of making this easier for people.
The more obstacles people have to traverse to go somewhere or do a thing, the less they do so. The presence of barriers in many places can lead to unwanted isolation, which is brutal to endure. Many activists, community members, and groups have fought to increase integration in communities for all, and accessibility is a substantial part of that integration. The significant work involved in making spaces accessible goes down the more we put the work in, as routines become familiar, word gets out that the spaces are increasingly accessible, and individual/team problem-solving gets better. There are now rules or guidelines that should be followed for new construction or re-modeling; for the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines are a cumulative effort that has been added to and upgraded over the decades since the passage of the ADA in 1990. European, Asian, African, and South American standards are in various stages of being developed and may differ in several areas from the ADA.
Wizards of the Coast (WotC) hints at accessibility in their Wizards Premium Network requirements for LGSs. Here's a link to their most recent checklist. This checklist is understandably focused on "does the store advertise and regularly sell decent amounts of WotC stuff?", yet parts of this write-up touch upon accessibility. For example, "comfortably navigable", "clutter-free", "easily accessible" are doing some work. These bits do not say who is supposed to comfortably navigate a space and they do not give a good sense of what accessible means in a sense beyond "an average person can get some games in". We can build on this.
If you are in charge of a space, here are clear steps you can take right now:
Change doors to lever handles, push/pull, and/or automatic open with a button or wave sensor
- Have you tried to work a round doorknob with grocery bags in each hand, a sprained wrist, while holding a toddler, or some other combination of "reasons I can't do this twist + push motion"? It's frustrating to struggle to enter a place. We can accidentally create a situation where we exclude people by having a round doorknob or a door that is difficult to open. Doorknobs are usually cheap and easy to change. Most public spaces have moved to a lever handle, push/pull set-ups, or even automatic doors with accessible buttons or sensors. At my workplace, there are "wave sensor" set-ups where one waves to a sensor panel to cause automatic door openers to operate; no button pushing needed to get in.
- Doors that have a "trick to open/close" should be fixed. Doors should be wide enough for people to easily get themselves in, their necessary equipment in, and their furniture in (American accessibility laws and guidelines set this width standard at at least 32 inches of clearance).
Have chairs and tables that are sturdy, yet moveable/modular
- A gaming space should have some level of flexibility with seating arrangements: tables and chairs that can move around easily; cushions available upon request; a table high enough for a person with a wheelchair to roll underneath; a service dog should be safe and comfortable next to their person; chairs should be comfortable to sit on for a few hours (metal fold-up chairs are not necessarily sufficient); at least some of the chairs need to be able to support someone who is heavier or needs to use the back to stand up/lean on.
Communicate in more than one way (especially during events)
- Address people by their preferred names and pronouns. This is basic, yet radiates like an Ink Treader Chaos Warp outwards into a better, safer, more fun environment for all.
- Places can get noisy and hectic; those times are exactly when clear communication is most valuable.
- Some of us prefer to hear an instruction or direction, others prefer to see it, and yet others prefer to have both. In games, we can talk and point. We can repeat our words upon request. We can wear masks with clear panels for those who rely on lip-reading. We can rearrange seating order and locations for visibility or audibility. Try to speak with faces towards people (rather than looking down). When speaking, try to use a steady, anticipatable cadence rather than too fast, too slow, or exaggerating mouth movements.
- Most places are doing a good job of getting store hours, event start times, etc., on their websites and social media. This can be added to by putting inclusive emergency evacuation plans on the website + displaying them in the space; written codes of conduct clearly displayed + on the website; pre-event speeches displayed on a monitor, webpage, or in paper form; having table assignments announced + displayed, player call-ups announced + displayed, alerting all players as to where the bathrooms are and procedures for that, etc. If someone requests a sign language interpreter or language translator for your event, have procedures, contracts, and contacts in place to accommodate them.
Safe coat/gear storage
- Ever been in a space where everyone has their winter parka on chair backs? It's not the best for getting around in that space. Having racks or trees for hanging up coats is useful. Getting the bigger, bulkier bags or suitcases out of the play space boosts navigability.
Solicit anonymous feedback from your community
- Ask your community several times in a variety of ways for anonymous feedback on things you can do to make things more comfortable and/or easier to access for them. There's a chance there's non-useful feedback, but what if someone tells you something that can be acted upon? I stress the anonymous part because advocating for accommodations can be difficult, challenging, or impossible. It can be draining to constantly have to speak up or to risk conflicts about getting needed accommodations. Removing the identifying component of asking eases this interaction.
Be willing and prepared to adapt situations to better fit a person or a specific situation
- This seems like a vague concept, yet a person who is enthusiastically going back and forth with someone about what they need is so much easier to work with. Disabilities come in many forms and not all are visible, which requires flexibility in accommodation. Disabilities are not necessarily permanent or static, yet they can still impact a person's life: think about sprains, bad bruises, broken bones, pregnancies, flare-ups of symptoms, seasonal allergies, long-term diseases, sensory disabilities, neurodiversity, seizures, motor impairments, etc.
- Disabilities also intertwine inextricably with issues relating to class, age, ethnicity, gender, physical locations, isolation/community, happiness, and quality of life. Having the same diagnosis or disability does not mean that each person needs or wants the same thing. Baking in flexibility to listen to each person about their needs that day or for the future is key. This can be done in ways like adding an extra 15 minutes to a set-up period or being willing to schedule a longer session for someone who needs one. The extra time that's baked into things like meetings or events goes a long way towards alleviating feelings of imposition of burden or being unwanted due to time pressures or unexpected challenges of adaptation.
Here are some things that can be done on a longer time scale or kept at the forefront when choosing an event space or embarking on a creative endeavor:
Change the entrances and doorways within a space to be more accessible
- A wide, easily accessed path and door is a wonderful thing to have, yet creation or modification of that can be costly or challenging to start. At the same time, the ease of access pays off every time it is used.
Can the temperature be easily regulated in spaces?
- Adjustable temperature is immensely valuable and more so when you can do it in a modular fashion. We aim for this dynamic in our homes and it is a huge consideration in the workplace. If a space is freezing or broiling, can the HVAC change this quickly? Can the space be divided into a warmer side and a cooler side for someone who needs that? Is there a portable and safe space heater available for someone who needs one? Blankets? Are there portable and quiet fans? Are the thermostats working well and located in the right places?
Is your website/video accessible?
- If a website is screen-reader-accessible or able to be read by people who need large text or a different font, that increases the number of people who can use it and learn about who you are and what you do. Static pages, like codes of conduct, schedules, or locations, are easy to make accessible. If the videos have captions, a solid 20-25% of viewers will put them on happily and those who bounce off because there are no captions won't bounce off anymore. It takes some heavy lifting and time/effort/skill to learn how to institute these accessibility changes, yet they are enormously appreciated by those who need them and the lift gets easier over time.
The bathrooms need to be accessible
- They must be easy to get to, clean, well-lit, and roomy enough that someone can turn around a wheelchair or stroller smoothly. Infant changing stations are appreciated by parents. I believe that places where people gather should have two bathrooms because bathroom needs are especially related to dignity, personal health, and public health. A useful sign trend I have seen shows/tells people what specific amenities are in the bathroom rather than denoting gender or something else.
Building an easy-to-access environment and range of options for a person to pick and choose what fits them best is better than trying to perfectly serve everyone with one approach. The diversity of needs, coping tactics, and personal preferences regarding long-lasting or temporary disabilities is something our gaming/gathering spaces need to take in account.
We get certain kinds of equipment and furniture for things like times when we're experiencing bad backs, bruised tailbones, scratched corneas, and other temporary or chronic injuries and/or disabilities. We childproof spaces for kids who sometimes seem to be doing their level best to cause mayhem and personal injury. We change spaces for elderly relatives who need handrails, less stairs, bigger buttons, slip-on shoes, and accessible showers. I recently visited a university that has a high percentage of Deaf students; almost all their tables and chairs in the classroom were on wheels, so they could be moved around to allow people to face each other in various configurations.
If a workplace, a LGS, or a family + friends group can consistently lower the difficulties of self-advocating and getting accommodations, the freedom that this builds boosts everyone. The more welcoming a physical space and a game environment is to people who have different requirements, the more people can share that space happily.
It may not be possible to make sub-spaces that are super modular and allows every person to have their needs met all at once, but how far can we push towards achieving that? I know of one LGS that has been in operation since the mid 1980s and still has round door handles, narrow doorways, dim lighting, and a tiny, non-accessible bathroom that a person kinda has to clamber over boxes of comics to use. I go to an LGS that does a significantly better job of providing accessibility, and the people who show up at this LGS reflect the diversity of the community to a greater degree than other places I know of in my area.
I maybe pulled a bait and switch here by saying this was EDH-focused, but I hope you forgive me and look at where you play with these practices in mind. We need to act again and again on these possible changes to create inclusive, welcoming spaces. Questions like "What am I supposed to do if someone has a seizure?", "Can everyone get out in case of an emergency?" or "Do people feel safe, welcome, and dignified in this space I have made?" shouldn't strike fear in the hearts of people. The culture of accessibility is one that needs to be physically and habitually built, then maintained. An accessible culture is a powerful culture to experience, and I wish you all the good fortune you'd ever want in building or re-modeling your spaces.