The Fall/Winter holiday season is always the busiest and most celebratory time of the year. However, it can also be one of the most difficult times for people with disabilities, and their family and friends. While it can be a time for sharing and togetherness that can strengthen friendships and familial bonds, the holidays also bring a diverse group of people together with different abilities in more extensive and sometimes demanding ways that can test whether spaces or events are truly inclusive and accessible.
Among holiday celebrations, disabled and non-disabled families and friends often struggle to accommodate each other to ensure everyone enjoys themselves, feels included, and nobody feels overwhelmed or left out. And that’s within the families and friend groups who put forth an effort to foster inclusion. In others, the holidays often uncover hidden layers of ableism, ignorance, exclusion, and existing family traumas.
So how do we prepare for the holidays and make it easier for friends and family members with disabilities to participate? In my line of work as a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and practitioner, I’ve done a lot of research, and quite a bit of personal work on this very subject. Of course, cramming all that I’ve learned over the years into a few paragraphs does not do the information justice, but here are a few important points that I’ve found and applied to my own celebrations that might be helpful to others:
- The very first step on the list is to ask people with disabilities what they need. People with disabilities are just like everyone else, they know their likes and dislikes, and what makes them comfortable, and most know exactly what they need. So, they are the best source to ensure that your gathering is inclusive and accessible. A great question to ask is, “Is there anything we can do to make it easier and more comfortable for you?”
When having these conversations here’s a great guide to help you engage with people with disabilities, Tennessee Disability Coalition’s Disability Etiquette Guide.
- Before you begin planning your event, check to see if the space is accessible. When planning events choose restaurants and other venues that are accessible. Making it a priority to look for these types of spaces is a way to support people with disabilities and support businesses that care enough to be
If you are planning a holiday gathering in your home and you want to include people with disabilities, consider whether there are barriers that can be easily removed or modified or tools that can be added. For example, setting up portable ramps or rearranging furniture to widen pathways to accommodate mobility devices can be a big help to people with physical disabilities. Providing sensory tools in your home like headphones, fidgets, or stuffed animals can help those who are neurodivergent. Just ensure that these modifications are safe and cater to the individual’s needs.
Checking with your nearest Center for Independent Living (four centers included in the links) to find out how to make simple modifications to your home or other resources that may assist in making your home accessible is a good idea too. But remember, if you can’t make your home accessible, there’s no need to cancel the gathering. You still have options to choose an accessible location. Perhaps another family member has already made their home accessible, or you can support accessible businesses near you.
- Activate your listening ears. Better yet be an active listener. Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Although we like to think that we will always be attentive, helpful, and positively responsive when a loved one has a disability-related need, that is not always the case. People with disabilities sometimes experience negativity and even ridicule when they make requests for their needs, even from some of the people closest to them. I can’t count how many times that I’ve seen people with disabilities ask for the simplest things and the person hosting acted like it was an inconceivable request or became annoyed for being asked for the accommodation.
Whether you consent to or even understand a disabled family member or friend’s requests, take them seriously. Then do whatever you can to accommodate them. Think of it as not being “accommodating,” but inclusive.
- Don’t plan events that you know will exclude friends or family members because of the differences in their abilities. Let inclusion be your first thought when making plans. Ask yourself, how can I ensure everyone feels included, comfortable and has fun. Just remember people with disabilities are just like everyone else, they can play games, join in on conversations, participate in gift exchanges, and so much more. And if you just must have that family traditional flag football game or any other exclusive event, find a way to incorporate those with disabilities in the game or offer equally alternative and social options that are accessible at the same time.
Also avoid arranging physical spaces that may inadvertently separate anyone or call undo attention to those with disabilities. Think carefully about the schematic of your event space and ensure that they have easy access to any personal tools they may need to accommodate their disabilities. And I can’t stress this enough ask them what they desire!
In your effort to be inclusive, here are a few mistakes that you want to avoid.
- Don’t make a fuss. Make it clear that you will make your event inclusive to the best of your ability, but don’t promise more than you can deliver. Try your best to make accommodations and accessibility solutions both effective, and if possible, without a lot of bells and whistles, or communicate with your guest that you couldn’t make that happen.
- Don’t apply pressure. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of pressuring people with disabilities into doing things they don’t want to do.
- Don’t seek recognition. It’s easy for people to want to get recognition for their efforts to make everything inclusive. But that just defeats the purpose of being inclusive, where you make genuine efforts to accommodate all. And again, stray away from making a fuss.
Finally, make your friends or family members with disabilities not only a part of the planning decision, but at the center of your holiday planning, and respect their decisions on what they choose. For this good communication is key. It’s the best way I’ve found to ensure that all your guests feel comfortable and included and have accessible fun!
If you need help finding resources that may assist you with making your holiday celebrations accessible and inclusive contact us at 1-800-640-4636, we’re always willing to help you find the resources you need.
ADA National Network. A Planning Guide for Making Temporary Events Accessible to People with Disabilities. Retrieved November 2023 from https://adata.org.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. 10 Tips for Including People with Disabilities in Your Holiday Celebrations. Respect Ability. Retrieved November 2023 from TNPathfinder.org.
VIPtogo. How to Plan Disability-Friendly Inclusive Events. Retrieved November 2023.