Accessibility: Universal design — disability access at WisCon

  • updated:  March 2023
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Want to request CART or ASL interpretation for WisCon 2023? Please use this Google form. Questions? Email us at

The Disability Inclusion Services offered by WisCon are informed by universal design and disability rights activism. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities, by making schedules, communications, and the physical environment usable by as many people as possible. We strive to create an event that works for members in all our physical and mental variety. We must balance that goal against limited fiscal resources, the paradox that sometimes one member’s accommodation is another member’s barrier, and an entirely volunteer work force. We always welcome discussion exploring how we can better accommodate our members.

Access Details:

These details are current as of January 2020. We attempt to answer common questions and be honest about known barriers. Please contact for accommodation requests, questions, or suggestions.

Allies: How Every Member Contributes to an Accessible Con

We all learn contradictory messages about people with disabilities. Disabled people are the archetypal “other”: the fate-worse-than-death, the sainted and spiritual, the cursed and amoral, the sub-human, the super-human, the sexless and the over-sexed. These conflicting stereotypes support a weird stew of fear and fascination. All members create a universally accessible con by paying attention to our own behavior and attitudes.

Beneficial behaviors for Panels/Presentations:

  • Keep your lips visible for those who speechread.
  • Use a microphone if one is available (even if you have vocal training)
  • If using Powerpoint or other presentation software, review these techniques for making accessible presentations
  • Use high color contrast for text in presentations or handouts. Low contrast may be difficult or impossible for colorblind or low vision users to read.
  • Caption any video/audio content.
  • Describe any images/charts you are using, for the benefit of blind or low vision members (general descriptions are fine; describe any relevant details).
  • If you are using paper handouts, electronic versions help people who want enlarged text or who use screen reading software.
  • Animations or other video content (particularly with rapid flashing/strobing) may be migraine/seizure triggers for some. Let people know if you will be using them (for example, the vid party has historically warned for this)

Elevators – convenience vs. necessity:

If you can use the stairways to move between program floors, please do! If you can only travel down, that still makes an important difference. Some of us absolutely depend on the elevators just to access the con. The reason might not be visible (arthritic knees or limited breathing); or might be obvious (wheelchair or canes) — but the need is still there.

Maintain clear paths:

WisCon provides fantastic opportunities to talk, but clogged doorways and hallways make navigation time-consuming for all, and impossible for some of us. Tuck your belongings in front of your feet or under your seat. Remind members gathered in doorways or hallways of the need to share the limited space so all of us can move freely.

Respect Blue Zones:

The blue squares in program rooms mark wheelchair parking. The blue striped chairs up front are for people who need to be close to hear or see. The blue stripes on the sixth floor create lanes to permit free movement even during parties. Please don’t stand in the striped zones.

Share the air:

Smoke and scents travel quickly, and air won’t move if you ask it to. Washing your hands after smoking makes a difference. We ask that you limit your use of scented products if you can do so without negatively affecting your health. For those of us with asthma, migraine, and chemical sensitivities, fewer fragrances, vapors, and particulates make the con a place we can attend. Some of us smoke, and some of us don’t. The Concourse Hotel is completely non-smoking, and we ask that smokers use the dedicated smoking area at the parking ramp entrance. WisCon is not, however, a fragrance-free con. Our “zoned fragrance” policy balances various realities: more details at Breathing.

Spread the word:

Universal Design simplifies life by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. The Access Team is delighted to discuss how you can incorporate universal design into your conventions, buildings, instruction, publishing and lives: contact us now via or in person at the con.

Service Animal Etiquette:

Although interacting with animals is tempting, please don’t pet, distract, or take photos of service animals at WisCon. Those of us who rely on service animals need our animals to be able to concentrate on doing their jobs well. We would also like to talk to you about science fiction, fantasy, politics, or other topics, rather than our service animal.

Offer help — don’t assume it’s needed:

Many of us are taught to help others, especially those with perceived disabilities, but not to ask, “Does this person want or need help?” If you think someone needs assistance, just ask. If they say yes, don’t make assumptions; instead listen to the details of what the person wants. If they say “no thanks,” don’t be offended. What might look overly complicated or inefficient can be what that person finds works best.

Speak up!:

You don’t need to have a disability to advocate for access. If you see barriers, feel free to suggest how to clear them — whether this means talking respectfully to other members, alerting Safety or contacting the Access Team or another Concom member.

Don’t assume people with disabilities want or need fixing:

Members with disabilities are here for the same reasons non-disabled members are: SF, feminism, politics, and chocolate. Talking about an interesting new book, a movie with problematic depictions of women, or a new podcasting tool you discovered, are much better conversation starters than “my nephew cured his fibromyalgia with a yak-milk diet” or “Don’t they have a wonderful new medicine for that?” or “Why take drugs when you just need a positive mental attitude and yoga?”


People are often curious about the details of a visible disability. A member’s medical history and details of how their body functions is private. Please do not ask how someone became disabled or assume their experience is the same as another person with a similar disability. The Access Team have chosen to be information resources about disabilities–ask us.

Minimizing Stress and Maximizing Comfort

The weather both inside and out varies a lot. Bring layers to add in chilly program rooms, subtract in hot ones, and ensure you’re comfortable in the wide range of weather both inside and outside the hotels.

WisCon is an energetic, some say wacky, environment. Finding stimulation is easy: here are options for managing stress and sensory overload.

If you need quiet immediately, take an elevator to floors 7 through 11. The elevator lobbies there have comfortable chairs and usually no people.

We’ve created the Quiet Place for those of us who need a break during the con. It’s a small dark room on the 2nd floor with room for up to six members, furnished with comfy chairs, padded benches, footstools and a toilet. It’s a good place to catch your breath, listen to your heartbeat, ruminate, and contemplate. The Quiet Place works when we respect its boundaries: please, no talking within. If there’s someone waiting for a space, yield yours after 30 minutes. Breastfeeding parents are welcome in the Quiet Place.

The calmest programming is the Readings track; sit back and listen to writers share their works. The Art Show on the 1st floor is a good place to stare off into the middle distance, contemplate the fascinating art in many media, and only talk if you want to. It’s least crowded during programming blocks.

Avoiding claustrophobia requires time as well as space management. Nearly 1000 members move between floors 1, 2, and 6 every 75 minutes during the day. Some people find it easier to attend every other programming item, using the time between to rest up, eat, or check out the Dealer’s Room and Art Show. However, the Dealer’s Room and Art Show are packed during the handful of unprogrammed hours in the con. The Consuite is always crowded and the Otherwise Award Bake Sale is very busy. Both the Dessert Salon and Sign Out have definite start times, so long lines form beforehand. These lines are entirely optional. Arriving part way through either event means the lines will be much shorter. Let a Safety volunteer know if you need to be seated early to avoid standing for a long time in line. The Dessert Salon buffet is replenished throughout the salon, and the Sign Out lasts for 90 minutes.

Contact with the natural world is close at hand. Visit the pocket park at Wisconsin Avenue and W Dayton Street, right and across from the hotel’s main door. A stroll around the Capitol Square is an excellent rejuvenator — except during Farmer’s Market 6 am to 2 pm Saturday. Feel free to stretch out on the Capitol’s lawn. Lake Mendota is also nearby: walk away from the hotel and Capitol down Wisconsin Avenue, and you’ll reach the Edgewater Hotel. To its right is a narrow dirt path that leads down to a boathouse that provides a nice view of the lake. In the opposite direction, stroll down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard on the other side of the Capitol to the roof of the Monona Terrace Convention Center overlooking Lake Monona.

WisCon welcomes breastfeeding anywhere in the convention. If you use a breastmilk pump, the most comfortable space between 9am and 5pm is our sixth floor Childcare space, which is quiet, has comfy chairs, and houses a kitchen sink for washing pump parts as well as a refrigerator that you may use for temporary storage of breastmilk, at the discretion of Childcare staff. If you are looking for a space closer to your next panel, any room not currently in use for programming is available, though those may lack a sink. The Concourse also has a dedicated Lactation Room on the third floor, though you may find it to be too distant from the rest of the convention.


WisCon provides information in various formats. Our most important publication is the Pocket Program Book. In addition to regular print, the WisCon web site hosts PDF and HTML versions as soon as they become available, generally the week before the con. (These files are available at the con on USB drives.) You can also reference programming and general information via the WisSched App, available for Android and Apple devices. A paper program is included with membership. You can get a large print or Braille version if you contact us before May 1st at


For the convenience of speech-readers, we set aside blue stripe seats front and center in every program room. Program participants use microphones in the larger program rooms. CART captioning is available at the Guests of Honor Speeches and Otherwise Auction. Limited ASL interpretation and additional CART captioning is also available: please use this Google Form if you would like to use this service. If you have questions or other accommodation requests, please email


Minifridges are now standard in the Concourse hotel rooms. If you are staying at another hotel, call them beforehand to inquire about fridges if your diet requires you to pack in food.

The Otherwise Award Bake Sale is held Friday afternoon on the sixth floor. All items are donated, and recipes are up to the donor. Vegan and gluten-free items have been offered in years past. Tree nuts and peanuts are present.

The Dessert Salon at 7:30 on Sunday precedes the Guests of Honor speeches. WisCon controls the selection of delicacies. Major allergens are labeled and vegan and gluten free delights are on offer. You don’t have to wait in line, since desserts are replenished throughout the event. Those of us with severe allergies to dessert ingredients, including tree nuts, peanuts, and chocolate, will want to avoid this event.

The Con Suite on the 6th floor is open Friday-Monday during mealtimes, with additional refreshments available outside of mealtimes in the Con Suite Annex across the hall. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options are available, and ingredients are posted.

The Concourse Hotel has two places to eat: The Bar serves light meals, and the Dayton Street Grille serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Prices start at $10 for breakfast and lunch, while dinners cost between $20 and $30.

Madison chefs often accommodate vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diners.

The free weekly Isthmus’ restaurant guide is searchable across many dimensions.

Save money by buying food: get local, fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses, and baked goods at Saturday’s Dane County Farmer’s Market, circling the Capitol between 6am to 2pm, one block from the Concourse. Three nearby grocery stores offer delivery and can prepare party food. Capital Centre Market is just four blocks from the hotel at West Mifflin and Broom Street (608-255-2616). A ten-minute drive or bus ride away, Willy Street Coop at 1221 Williamson Street (608-251-6776) offers local, organic, fair-trade, and conventional food. Non-members pay a surcharge on the listed prices; member reciprocity is available for members of other co-ops with ID. They pay careful attention to food preparation and their deli has excellent, ready-to-eat food, including vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore options. Fresh Madison Market, located at 703 University Ave., (608-287-0000) also offers delivery.


Our “zoned” fragrance policy balances two needs. For some members, fragrances trigger asthma, migraine, or illness. Some members need to use fragrance to manage pain and mood. Please leave scented products at home if you can do so without detriment to your own health. The Dealers’ Room wares may include scented soaps and dusty books. The hotel uses scented cleaning products. Those of us who react strongly to fragrances, dust, and particulates should bring an N95 mask. Madison is a smoke-free city. All indoor public places — including bars — are smoke-free. Smokers tend to congregate around the doors to public buildings, as well as the many restaurants with sidewalk seating. Smokers at the hotel gather at the double-door parking ramp entrance on the Wisconsin Avenue side of the hotel, where there’s cover from the rain, a bench, and an ashtray. Pets are not allowed in the Concourse, although service animals are of course welcome. We encourage washing items in fragrance-free detergents before donating them to the Gathering’s Clothing Swap, but we cannot guarantee the absence of fragrance or animal dander. Latex balloons may decorate party rooms. Those of us severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts should take care before entering the Con Suite and the Dessert Salon, and should avoid the Otherwise Award Bake Sale.


Because Madison’s central Isthmus runs northeast to southwest, compass references can be confusing. Locals use a notional compass rose that’s rotated 45 degrees clockwise, but right and left directions are– we hope — more comprehensible for visitors. While locals refer to “the Square,” it’s officially known as the Capitol Concourse. “The Square” can mean the inner or outer sidewalks, the rectangle of clockwise-only streets that divide them (each with an inner and outer parking lane, and two lanes of traffic), or the Capitol grounds, which include nicely manicured lawns surrounding the building.

The Concourse Hotel is a long rectangle occupying half a city block. Its front door is on West Dayton Street, which is one-way: two lanes of cars travel right to left, with a lane of parked cars next to the sidewalk across the street. When you’re inside facing out the front door to Dayton St, the hotel’s right side is on Wisconsin Avenue (which has a traffic signal), and the left side is North Carroll St (which has a stop sign). Turn left out the front door, cross North Carroll Street, go one more block, and you’re on State Street. Another left and you’re moving to the “top” of State, on the 100 block. Beyond that is the magnificent State Capitol building that sits atop the hill that encompasses downtown Madison and “The Square”. The University of Wisconsin campus starts at the other end of State Street, with the main campus sitting upon another hill.

The key indoor hotel landmark is WisCon’s registration desk. It’s on the 2nd floor, right at the top of the grand staircase. From the elevators, turn right, go ahead 30 feet, turn right again, and holler “Where’s registration?” You pick up your member badge here. Both the Program and the WisSched App contain maps. Registration has a super-sized map and experts ready to help you chart your travels. They can show you how to use the Message Board, a low-tech system to communicate with anyone who has registered. Navigating by following the edges of corridors is almost impossible on the second floor. All the larger room doors open out to a 130 degree angle, creating sudden obstructions as well as dead end pockets. Narrow tables line the remaining wall space, each stacked with two levels of print freebies. The first and 6th floors are easier to navigate by following corridor edges. First floor landmarks are the base of the staircase (front and center when you enter the hotel) and the “living room” couches (off to the right, across from the Front Desk and before the elevators). The best 2nd floor landmark is the top of the staircase, across from Registration. The hotel numbers its rooms sequentially around the edges of the rectangle; all room numbers are provided in raised metal and Braille.   We’d be delighted to offer one-on-one guided tours Friday morning: please contact to arrange a time.

WisCon without Steps

Even if you usually do fine with canes or a walker, standing on concrete floors or going six blocks to a restaurant can be hard work. We have a loaner manual wheelchair for your short-term use — stop by Registration to pick one up. We can put you in touch with local wheelchair, scooter, or powerchair rentals between $120 and $200 for the long weekend: contact for details.

The Concourse Hotel meets ADA guidelines. At the Concourse, you can use power door openers for the pair of glass doors at the Wisconsin Avenue end of the hotel, where the parking ramp descends below the Concourse. (This is also the designated smoking spot). Watch out for the single step between the sidewalk and the concrete-cobblestone-entrance ramp. All interior doors have lever handles.

In the Concourse, the public bathrooms on the 1st and 2nd floors are generously proportioned: the big stalls have enough room and grab bars for a side to side transfer. (Wisconsin code, however, does not require a sink inside this stall.) The only public wheelchair-accessible bathroom that’s large enough for an assisted transfer is inside the pool room on the 3rd floor, which requires a hotel key to enter.

We mark several wheelchair parking areas in every program room with blue tape, so you can stay in your wheelchair or scooter if you prefer. If an Art Show item is above your eye level, don’t hesitate to ask the Art Show volunteer to bring it closer to view.

The Concourse provides three rapid elevators available to all; their control panels are within seated reach and the mechanical buttons don’t require a human finger. These elevators are 80 inches wide but only 47 inches deep. The central double doors open to 42 inches. Navigators of longer mobility devices may need to angle in to a corner to fit. The doors close fast! Just holler “hold that elevator” and congoers will rush to comply.

We remind all members to use the stairs when that’s possible, and to yield elevator space to those of us who must use the elevators to move around the con. Speak up if you need to use the elevator, especially if you don’t use a visible mobility aid (like a cane, walker, or wheelchair).

Concourse: Assembly and Caucus Rooms on Floor 1.5 These two programming rooms are half-a-floor higher than the rest of the 1st floor. To reach these rooms, allow yourself an extra four minutes to ride the very slow short-distance platform elevator. Enter the elevator backwards so you can firmly pull the door shut behind you to engage the motor. The call button on the outside and the car up/down button inside both require constant pressure. Unfortunately the exterior door next to Assembly has steps outside, so you can’t just zip out the front door and around the corner.

Avoiding the Lines at Dessert Salon & SignOut: Some people enjoy waiting in line on Sunday afternoon for the Dessert Salon to open, and Monday morning for the SignOut to begin. This is not mandatory — neither event is based on scarcity. The dessert table is constantly refilled throughout the Salon, and the SignOut lasts 90 minutes. The tables for the Dessert Salon are closely packed and difficult to navigate when the room is nearing capacity. WisCon uses a numbered-seating system to seat people at the Dessert Salon, with the lowest numbers reserved for people who need the help of assistive devices or staff to be seated. Check in with Safety or Registration to ensure you can be seated in the first groups, should you require it. There will be chairs available near the door for people who need to sit until their number is called.

There is long-term, accessible parking in local public parking ramps. The closest parking ramp is catty-corner from the Concourse on North Carroll Street. Almost every block that has any parking has one accessible stall. However, some of these stalls have three-hour limits even for disabled-permit holders. Downtown Madison is thoroughly curb-ramped, but there are a handful of restaurants, shops, and other public places that lack a level entrance.

The Concourse has three sleeping rooms with roll-in showers, as well as more rooms that are suitable for folks who can briefly stand. These rooms are on one side of the 4th floor; the other end of this floor contains the handful of smoking-permitted sleeping rooms, the only place in the hotel where smoking is allowed.

The smallish Concourse Hotel pool is on the third floor, with a 4-6 person hot whirlpool in one corner. The pool room is all on one level, but you may need a hand with the heavy door. There are lockers, a changing room, and many towels. The deep end is 5′, and has a steel entry ladder. The shallow end is 2’6″ with a shallow staircase of four 9″ risers and 18″ treads, with steel handrails on both sides. One could possibly use it as a transfer stair, although it’s not designed for that purpose.

The Concourse Hotel, unfortunately, does not provide wheelchair accessible shuttles to and from the airport. Madison’s Metro buses are all accessible and run regularly between the airport and downtown, and several local cab companies, including Union Cab, have accessible vehicles in their fleets.

Potential Barriers that Remain

Given our fiscal limitations, our commitment to our current conference venues, and the reality that sometimes one member’s accommodation is another member’s barrier, we can’t make WisCon perfectly accessible to everyone. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep. We want you to know about these potential barriers so you can make informed decisions. “No” is not the same message as “we don’t care” or “we don’t believe you” or “we’re comfortable ignoring your needs.” The ConCom has and will continue to wrestle with these issues. Contact for background on these remaining barriers:

  • Most of the rooms are illuminated with fluorescent lighting.
  • Members bring a lot of reading materials offered only in regular print. The 2nd floor corridor contains “freebie” tables containing information on events, zines, books, con bids, art shows, political theater, and much more. Party announcements and such decorate the walls.
  • Folks with severe nut allergies must definitely avoid the Con Suite, Otherwise Award Bake Sale, and Dessert Salon (more details at Eating.)
  • WisCon is not scent-free. For some members, fragrances trigger asthma, migraine, or illness, while some members need to use fragrance to manage pain and mood. Those of us who react to fragrances, dust, and particulates should bring an N95 mask (more details at Breathing.)
  • The toilet facilities are labeled “Men” and “Women,”as stipulated by the venue. There is a single-occupancy accessible all-gender bathroom with hallway access on the 6th floor between rooms 627 and 629. Additionally, there are bathrooms in Conference Rooms 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the 2nd floor, and in all of the 6th floor panel programming rooms. Please note that panels may be taking place, but you are welcome to enter quietly to use the restroom. There are no public wheelchair-accessible family restrooms; the nearest is one-and-a-half blocks away on the 2nd floor of the Overture Center.
  • Hotel carpet can make wheeled travel more challenging.
  • No microphones amplify program presenters in smaller program rooms.