When Jill Summerville, a wheelchair user, describes her experiences serving as her friend’s maid of honor several years ago, she focuses on several key aspects. One was her friend’s touching maid of honor proposal. And another is the effort her friend invested in ensuring her wedding was a celebration that Summerville could fully participate in.
“The bride wasn’t giving me only the chance to honor our relationship by standing (or sitting) beside her,” Summerville wrote for The Washington Post’s “Wedding Guest Wednesday.”
“When she made her wedding accessible, she gave me a chance to be a woman, instead of a disabled woman frequently upstaged by her (admittedly sparkly) wheelchair.”
Helping your guests — all of your guests — share the joy of your wedding is one of your responsibilities as a host. And in most cases, accomplishing that goal is very doable, whether it calls for sending a Braille invitation to your visually impaired aunt or working with your venue to make sure that your best man, who wears leg braces, can safely navigate the reception area.
If you are expecting guests, or wedding party members, with disabilities, there are a number of steps you can take to make your big day accessible to them. I have some general guidelines and ideas for you, but, generally, your guest(s) will be the best, and most important, source of information for you.
Communication Is Key
With that in mind, we strongly encourage you to initiate a conversation with your disabled guests early in your planning process. Asking them what you should know is not intrusive: It’s a considerate and proactive way to make sure you’re meeting their specific needs. Tara Ahern of Roots of Life Photography addressed this idea in a recent blog on Lakeshore in Love.
“Speaking from my own personal experience having a physical disability, I cannot express how meaningful it is when those around me anticipate an accessibility need I may have or thoughtfully ask what they can do to help,” Ahern wrote. “It shows empathy and validation of the lived experiences I (and other people with disabilities) carry every day.”
In addition to asking guests to explain what they’ll need at your wedding (and related events like the shower, bachelor party, and rehearsal dinner) consider asking about the following:
· Seating considerations for the ceremony and reception
· Dietary restrictions
· Hotel and transportation requirements
· The need for specific services, such as an American Sign Language Interpreter
· Things that should be avoided, such as dance floor lights that could trigger seizures
To avoid communication mishaps — like a guest wrongly assuming that you know their plus-one has a hearing loss — it wouldn’t hurt to add wording to your RSVP card and/or wedding website encouraging guests to let you know how you can accommodate them.
A blog for One Fab Day suggests wording your statement like this:
“Our wedding is a day for everyone to enjoy so please let us know if you have any dietary restrictions or require special accommodations.”
While most venues, by federal law, must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), it’s still a good idea to make sure the location you’re considering meets your disabled guests’ specific needs. This is especially important if you’re considering a historic venue built before the ADA went into effect in the early 1990s.
When you tour potential sites, check for the following:
· Bathrooms: Do the stalls provide ample room for a motorized wheelchair? Are there grab bars?
· Building and room entrances: Will guests of all abilities be able to enter and exit easily?
· Elevators: Do they work? Does the venue have a contingency plan for malfunctions during events?
· Outdoor settings: If you plan to have some or all of your wedding outdoors, will all of your guests have easy access to chairs, tables, and gathering areas? Will everyone in the wedding party be able to safely go down the aisle during the ceremony?
Don’t limit your tour to the rooms where your ceremony and reception will take place. Inspect dressing rooms along with the spaces where you’ll be holding your cocktail hour and grand exit for accessibility.
If you see any potential obstacles or challenges for disabled guests, talk with the venue. Are they willing to work with you to address them?
Food and Beverages
Food and drink typically are major elements of a wedding, but this is an area where accessibility issues can sneak in. During cocktail hour, for example, standing around noshing on finger foods or sipping drinks may not be doable for all in attendance. You might need to enlist staff or a guest to assist a guest or consider offering a seated area — hopefully, in a way that doesn’t make disabled guests feel isolated from the rest of the attendees.
Along the same lines, if you’ve been thinking about offering a buffet or mini food stations, be sure to have a plan in place so all of your guests can peruse the selections and make a plate. Again, a staff member or volunteer guest should be able to help.
You’ll also want to talk with your caterer in advance if any of your guests have food allergies or intolerances so they have safe alternatives and know which dishes to avoid.
For some guests, the lighting, music, conversations, aromas, and activity at a wedding can contribute to sensory overload. You can help by making sure there’s a quiet, comfortable area where guests who need it can take a break.
“In addition to SPD (sensory processing disorder) and autism, sensory stimuli may also be triggers for individuals with PTSD, anxiety, and/or other mental health conditions,” Kira Bender, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in working with children and young adults on the autism spectrum, told Love Inc. “Many of these disabilities are ‘invisible,’ which means they cannot be easily observed; you may have loved ones with disabilities that you are not aware of. Creating options will allow your entire community to celebrate together.”
Depending on your guests’ needs, you may need to work with your venue to provide an extra buffer of space for those in a wheelchair or scooter.
If anyone on the guest list is visually impaired or has a hearing loss, try to provide optimal seating so they can enjoy the ceremony and toasts during the reception.
Guests with a hearing loss may want a sign language interpreter. If you’re not sure where to find one, Accessibility.com recommends starting with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (rid.org).
While these suggestions aren’t comprehensive, they should help jumpstart your planning process.
In most cases, once you understand what your guests will need to enjoy your wedding, you generally can find venues and vendors — along with friends and family — willing to help you accommodate them. In the end, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you helped make the day memorable for them for all of the right reasons.
About the Author:
Roger Igo is the founder and CEO of special events venue, The Bell Tower on 34th, along with Houston catering service Excellent Events, and research resource, Venues in Houston. He is the author of “Keep On Going, The History of The Bell Tower on 34th,” a former radio host, a graduate of CEO Space International, and an alumnus of The Disney Institute.