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How costumers are using cosplay to overcome mental and physical disabilities

At New York Comic Con, cosplayers used their creativity to change perceptions

Jayden cosplaying as the red Power Ranger

One of the most beautiful things about New York Comic Con this past weekend was the diverse array of attendees at the four-day celebration. New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center and its surrounding streets were filled with children, senior citizens, couples, families, seasoned cosplayers, self-proclaimed “blerds” (a portmanteau for “black nerds”), and everyone in between. It was hard to not be moved by the inclusive nature of the event, where thousands of people came to express their fandom for whatever character or property they identify with, whether that meant simply watching the crowd, or arriving in elaborate costumes they crafted themselves.

Some of the most creative cosplayers, however, were those with disabilities. At this year’s NYCC, it was hard to miss the significant number of people eagerly taking to the show floor in wheelchairs or walkers. On the final day of the convention, a panel called “Cosplay and Disabilities” highlighted those fans, who noted an apparent uptick in disabled attendees this year. "I think I’ve seen more wheelchairs this year than I’ve ever seen,” said Dylan “DozenFingers” Cohen, a cosplayer with Tourette syndrome who was dressed as Son Goku from the Dragon Ball manga. “And they’re troopers, they really are.”

The panel on Cosplaying and Disabilities. From the left: David Vogel, Dylan Cohen, Nathan Gonzales, Justin Santiago, Joseph Munisteri, Startdust Megu, and Harujuku Chic.

The panelists described conventions like New York Comic Con as judgement-free zones that allowed them to unleash their creativity through costuming. But cosplay also lets them improve their social skills and seek out friends with common interests. “Cosplay has helped my disability in that I have ADHD as well as autism,” explained social worker and activist Joseph “Dopple Cosplay” Munisteri. The inclusive environment of cosplayers helped him learn to socialize, he said, while the attention costuming requires let him learn to focus better, through something he’s actively passionate about. “Schoolwork, you don’t always want to do it,” he said, “but [cosplaying] is something you want to do.”

Another panelist, Justin “LionHeart cosplay” Santiago, had similar experiences. “I’m diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. So learning about that is like following patterns, repetitions. This helped me construct some kind of order.” Santiago says he was reclusive during his childhood, and had trouble socializing, but cosplaying allowed him to come out of his shell and make new friends. "It’s changed my life so much, and I’m eternally grateful to it.”

Santiago also noted that his fellow panelists with physical disabilities were often pushed to design more creative costumes due to their conditions, though that sometimes gives them a broader canvas to work with. “Last year we had someone who made his wheelchair look like an Iron Throne,” he explained. That said, building a costume around crutches or a chair isn’t easy. That’s led to companies like nonprofit Magic Wheelchair, which focuses specifically on helping children dress up and stylize their wheelchairs so they don’t feel excluded.

Magic Wheelchair’s regional director, David Vogel, was also on the panel. He explained that he originally came from a toy-making background, and joined the initiative after losing his brother to muscular dystrophy. Vogel said his latest project was for a child named A.J. who suffers from Rett syndrome and is obsessed with the Nick Jr. show Blaze and the Monster Machines. The Magic Wheelchair team was able to raise enough money to transform A.J.’s wheelchair into the Blaze vehicle, complete with custom 3D-printed parts.

David Vogel of Magic Wheelchair.

Other wheelchaired cosplayers on the convention floor often had friends or family members by their side who helped them assemble their costumes. David, a fourth-year attendee from the Bronx, explained that was exactly how he’d been able to put together his impressive Professor X costume. “It lets you be someone different for a day,” he said, a common sentiment across cosplayers in wheelchairs. The focus is drawn away from their disability, he explained, and centered on the character they’re bringing to life instead.

David from the Bronx cosplaying as Professor X.

Professor X is one of the few comics characters with a physical disability who is relatable for disabled cosplayers. Otherwise, representation of mental and physical disabilities in the comic and anime worlds is few and far between. “There’s never going to be enough representation,” said Munisteri. “There is a comic book out there called Hydro Girl, which is written and drawn by these awesome people in Australia. It’s about a girl who suffers from hydrocephalus.” Beyond Hydro Girl, Munisteri mentioned a UK-based comic called Department of Ability. The creator of the comic has a daughter in a wheelchair, and wanted to turn her into a superhero, so she felt like she had someone to connect with while reading comics. The Venture Bros. also tackle disability, “but there’s not enough,” Munisteri concluded.

But for those who can’t find representation in comics, conventions are an opportunity to showcase original characters. Alicia, a wheelchair-bound first-time attendee from New York, was cosplaying as her own character: Alexia the fairy demon. “She’s the savior of man. She’s in a world where people are different,” she explained. “She has to be one to help save them before darkness invades everything.” Alicia’s first experience cosplaying at Comic Con was transformative. “It was liberating. Cosplaying allows me to be more creatively confident. Here, you get to see all types of people, so it lets you be more comfortable with just being yourself.”

Disabled cosplayers still have their struggles. The most common complaint at NYCC was the difficulty in simply getting around the convention floor. Eilzabeth Osterman, a Boruto cosplayer from California, said both crowd flow and the materials used on the convention center floor posed problems for her, given her use of a walker. “They need to figure out a way to move people along better, and the aisles need to be bigger,” she said. “It’s harder for my wheels to get around on certain textures, so carpeting would be a lot better.”

The issue of improved accessibility came up multiple times during the convention. During the cosplay panel’s audience questions segment, a physical education teacher from the Bronx took a moment to specifically call out the carpeting as a problem that needed to be addressed. ”For those of us who can walk, it’s not an issue. For someone in a motorized chair, it’s less of an issue,” he said. “But for someone in a manual chair, it’s a huge issue.” A better alternative, he suggested, would be hard rubberized flooring that could provide better traction for visitors in wheelchairs.

A physical education teacher from the Bronx interjected to relay his concerns about the convention floor.

The key to getting a response from organizers, according to advocates like Munisteri, is being vocal about the community’s needs. As an example, he cited the “quiet room” that the convention offers for attendees who may find the sensory overload of a convention floor too much to handle. “Last year, we mentioned putting pillows into a quiet room, and this year I walked in, and guess what, there were big pillows there,” he said. He encouraged the physical education teacher to direct his suggestions about carpeting to the NYCC organizers themselves.

But while Comic Con works on those logistical aspects, the cosplay community is growing stronger every day, as an inclusive, accessible place for people to be themselves, with the focus on their creativity instead of on their conditions. As Cohen put it, “When you’re cosplaying, you’re just relaxed, because you’re in your environment, and you don’t feel like an outsider. Being around likeminded people helps also, because they don’t judge you. People that love you are not going to judge you, and that’s why we cosplay."

Photography by Zainab Hasnain / The Verge