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Comic-Con and beyond: Why many disabled people find comic culture relatable

Cosplayers Carly Shadrick and Bryan Suarez attend Comic-Con 2015 as Bing Bong and Joy from Pixar's
Cosplayers Carly Shadrick and Bryan Suarez attend Comic-Con 2015 as Bing Bong and Joy from Pixar's "Inside Out."
Katherine Garrova

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Spend just a few minutes at San Diego’s Comic-Con, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the creativity of the thousands of cosplayers who flock to the convention center every year dressed as their favorite characters.

Cosplayers like Carly Shadrick, who uses a wheelchair. “I personally try to play my cosplay with my disabilities. So one year I went as Dr. Nefario from ‘Despicable Me’ on my red mobility scooter,” Shadrick said.  

This year she fastened brooms to the side of her wheelchair and it became part of her costume for a character from Pixar’s “Inside Out.” A certain pink fellow made of cotton candy.

Shadrick wasn’t the only person with disabilities who made it out to this year’s Comic-Con. In fact, the convention has a Deaf and Disabled Services department to accommodate attendees with special needs. Among their services are American Sign Language interpreters and wheelchairs for loan.

Barry Webb volunteers with Comic-Con’s Deaf and Disabled Services. He participated in the cosplay fun too. Well, his service dog, Roxy, did anyway.

Barry Webb's cosplaying service dog, Roxy. 

“This is our third year of volunteering and the Comic-Con people are just fantastic,” said Webb. “We get in the front of the line along with the wheelchair folks.”

After showing off Roxy the service dog’s red cape, Webb explained why he thinks comic culture is so attractive to people with disabilities.

“You go back to Daredevil. He was a blind lawyer and he had a disability,” Webb says. “It’s just, they don’t say no to anybody. So us people with the disabilities, they’re not going to say no to us.”

Gilles Stromberg is the illustrator and co-creator of a group of characters she calls the “Access Avengers” -- a team of superheroes who have mental and physical disabilities.

“I think there’s a lot of times when we’ve seen a lot of superheroes who are coming to the table with different identities, and some of them may be coming in with a disability,” Stromberg said.

Stromberg agrees that, in the world of comics, it’s not unusual to find a fictional character with a very real disability. Professor Charles Xavier has a wheelchair in the “X-Men” series, Iron Man lacks a functioning heart -- the list goes on. But, according to Stromberg comics can sometimes be one-dimensional when it comes to portraying people with disabilities.

“In my own personal perspective I see a lot of times we have writers and we have illustrators who are using disabilities as an accessory as opposed to reflecting the entire identity of someone,” said Stromberg.  

Stromberg wants to see more -- and more accurate -- depictions of disabilities in comics, but still agrees that comic book culture as a whole is very welcoming. Stromberg has never made it out to San Diego’s Comic-Con, but has been involved in convention culture for a very long time. “I think there’s a lot of things in convention culture that are amazing when it comes to building community, especially with those with disabilities,” Stromberg said.

It’s that same comic convention culture that’s brought Katie Bertram of Albuquerque, New Mexico back to San Diego’s Comic-Con for eight years now. Bertram’s disability means she has to use an electric wheelchair to navigate the convention floor, but she says she’s been pleased with how much the convention organizers and volunteers take people like her into consideration.

“I’m very happy with them, always have been,” Bertram said. “I suffer from MS, so they make it easy with the rest and relaxation areas, that’s good.”

Bertram thinks many disabled people are drawn to comic culture because of its inclusive nature.

“I’m different and I’m accepted in this culture,” said Bertram.  

As for her favorite comic book characters? They represent both a dream and a personal reality.

“I love Spiderman, I’m a Spiderman girl. Can’t move like him. But I like Professor X, how he has a wheelchair and is totally acceptable,” Bertram said.  

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