Review of A Celebration of Star Trek at DePaul University

This weekend my spouse and I had the pleasure to attend A Celebration of Star Trek at DePaul University in Chicago. This was a one day free conference, open to the public, and hosted in the downtown (Loop) campus of DePaul, right in the center of Chicago. Specifically, this conference was hosted by the Media and Cinema Studies program at DePaul. DePaul University is the largest Catholic University in the United States.

The event itself included a full day of speakers and panels, as well as lots of showings of episodes from the various Trek shows. There were also several vendors, a silent auction that benefited ChimpHaven, and a book sale at the Barnes and Noble store within the same building. I attended one Klingon history lecture, two panels, and two show screenings. I would have stayed longer, but I wasn’t feeling well and had to head home early.
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Review of A Celebration of Star Trek at DePaul University

Review of Freethought Festival

CN: Very mild mentions of ableism, trans erasure, alcohol.

I attended Freethought Festival in Madison Wisconsin this past weekend. This was the 5th time the students at University of Wisconsin have hosted this event, and I have attended all of them largely because it’s free and in my home town. Three Orbit bloggers, Heina, Greta, and Alix, have spoken at this event over the years.

Freethought Festival (FTF) is definitely a mainstream Atheist event. The keynote speaker this year was James Randi, though I missed his talk because I needed to leave town. Despite being a student-run event, the audience isn’t very diverse, with a high percentage of older white men. The speakers were 69% male, 85% white this year, though this has varied in years past with a more gender balanced group of speakers in 2015 and 2013. It does not put itself forward as a social justice event, but has featured talks with distinctly justice oriented themes, such as Alix’s talk on diversity in the atheist community in 2012 and Desiree Schell’s talk on the links between unions and freethought in 2013.

In the 5 years I have attended FTF I have not attended every talk or every social event, but I have attended some portion of all 5 events. I have seen some really fascinating talks, and a few boring ones. I have heard some things I disagreed with from the stage, but that is to be expected, and nothing really stands out to me as shockingly offensive in my memory.

The event is FREE! This is a major bonus for those, like me, who have little funds to attend atheist conventions. If you can get there, you can attend. The event itself is free, and located in an area with reasonably inexpensive food, including grocery stores and fast food nearby (there are great restaurants too). Those who live in Madison can get there easily, but those from outside the area may struggle to find highly affordable accommodations in the downtown area. There is a hostel in the area though, which may be the cheapest option for visitors. It’s a short bus or medium length walk from campus.

The spaces used by this event have been increasingly attractive and comfortable over the past few years. It began in a lecture hall in the old uncomfortable Humanities Building, and has moved to more and more comfortable spaces over time. The most recent space was a big ballroom in a brand new building, with neat textured wood walls and a generally clean and well-made feel. It definitely feels different than the old lecture hall and the audio-visual tech has improved dramatically over the years.

FTF has a harassment policy on their website, which is easily found on the “Event Information” page. The policy is a pretty standard boilerplate policy, without any glaring problems. In my experience the wording of a harassment policy isn’t as important as how it is enforced, and I am not aware of any problems with enforcement at this particular event. In fact, since I am not involved in the running of this event, I’m unaware of any reported incidents of harassment so it is possible that there have not been any reasons for enforcement at this time. I did NOT see any paperwork on the harassment policy at the event itself, including on the registration desk, but I didn’t go looking for it either. One way this event could improve is by making the policy (or a short version of it) visible at the event itself.

The website and physical location had absolutely no recognition that I could find of the existence of disabled attendees. While the building it was held in this year and the past few years have complied with ADA requirements (unlike the first year), there was no seating set aside for people using mobility devices, no ASL interpretation or transcription, no discussion of accessibility issues on the website or paperwork at registration. This is a major area that FTF could improve. It is incredibly inexpensive to include accessibility information on the website and to set aside reserved mobility seating at the event. While including interpreters and similar accommodations can be expensive, I think it’s worth it to make an event accessible to more attendees.

From a neuroaccessibility perspective I didn’t find this event to be as comfortable as I found Skepticon this past year. That event actively works to recognize that their attendees have varied physical needs and have been at the forefront of accessible events even while still charging nothing to attend. At FTF I brought my own fidgets and found that the volume was very comfortable for me (maybe too quiet for others) but it didn’t feel like a space that was actively trying to be inclusive of everyone.

The building FTF was held in this year, as well as the one with the social events, did not have a gender neutral bathroom, or at least not one that was easy to find. If there is one available, this should be indicated to attendees with signs or something similar. The absence of neutral bathrooms, and no commentary about it, indicates that the event organizers may be unaware that this is an important issue. Gender non-binary attendees and trans attendees who desire neutral bathrooms should have a safe place to use, and if none is available the event should work to remedy this situation and acknowledge the problem publicly.

The social events for FTF are a major area in which they could improve. People are encouraged to socialize at the Union South, a student union several blocks walk from the main event. The Union itself is pretty cool, but the rooms these events have been in for the past 2 years are frankly boring and uncomfortable. This year there was definitely not enough space for the number of people who wanted to socialize due to the building code restrictions, which meant people spilled out into the halls. The social culture revolves around beer and talking very loudly in rooms that echo. Not great. Even worse, you have to go down a flight of stairs and across the lower level into a SUPER loud bar area to order beer or appetizers, then bring them back up to the socializing area. I’m sure alternatives must exist for this set-up, perhaps in any one of the many near-campus restaurants or coffee shops nearby. In fact, an alcohol-free social event in a nearby coffee shop would be ideal. I like drinking, but this is a student run event that should include the underage students they want to reach, and the social events should reflect that.

I’m going to keep attending Freethought Festival in future years, because they continue to bring in speakers I am interested in seeing and it’s easy for me to go to a free event in my home town. I’d love to see the improvements in accessibility and social events that could lead to this being a much more accepting and fun event to attend.

Review of Freethought Festival

Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia

CN: Mild spoilers for the movie “Zootopia” (aka “Zootropolis” in some countries) but I don’t think they’ll ruin the movie for you at all.

I had the pleasure of seeing “Zootopia,” Disney’s new animated film, on the second day it was out. Spouse and I went with little knowledge of what the movie would be, primarily because it looked cute and had a bunny as the main character. I tend to really love animated family movies.

Much has already been written about the racial politics of this film. It’s excellent and really complex, working hard to tell a story about prejudice that’s far more complex than movies aimed at kids usually are. It explores prejudice, and overcoming it, on both the individual and systemic scale. It shows how structures of power can be corrupt and wrong, and how those in power can manipulate the prejudice of others to build their strength. I loved it.

Additionally, I noticed something else while watching this movie. The world “Zootopia” takes place in accommodates animal characters of a huge range of sizes and shapes. All of the characters are mammals (the scientist part of me appreciated that they acknowledge this in the script), but the mammal class is hugely varied.

“Zootopia” is both the name of the film, and the name of the capital city in which most of the movie takes place. The city comprises several ecosystems, recognizing that the same environment is not comfortable for both a savanna gazelle and a polar bear. All mammals can cross these ecosystem borders, and it seems clear that the immediate downtown area is where all species interact regularly.

As the main character, Judy Hopps, sees the city for the first time we get a beautiful sweeping view of all of the ways Zootopia recognizes the needs of its different citizens. Hippos in business suits come out of the water to blowdryers. A beverage stand sends a drink up a small lift for a giraffe. Hamsters (who apparently make good bureaucrats?) come from the small mammal part of the city via habitrails.

This scene is a stunning way of showing how a community could work to make public spaces accessible to people with varying needs too. The creativity put into making the city easy to use for such a diverse group is beautiful.

The team at Disney didn’t stop there. Once Judy is settled into the city and the shine wears off, the ways in which inaccessible design is used for institutional oppression become clear. There are certain places not everyone is welcome, and the spaces themselves show that. Judy runs up against this in her first moments on the job. This is something people with physical disabilities encounter constantly in our world. No ramp? You’re not welcome here. Reception desk too high to see over? This establishment isn’t really for people like YOU.

I applaud “Zootopia” both for displaying really creative ideas for accessibility and for recognizing the ways built environments can send messages of non-inclusion. I especially like that they included this in a broader story that’s mostly about race, displaying intersectionality in a way that perfectly melds with the world building and doesn’t feel preachy.

Edit notes: This post experienced minor editing on 3/17/2016 to fix a few small typos. Nothing of substance changed.

Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia