It’s helpful if you talk to your disabled loved ones to see what works for them.
As much fun as the holiday season can be, it’s also exhausting, time-consuming, and hard work. It leaves a lot of people feeling fatigued. There’s so much preparation, money, and anxiety that goes into making the holidays happen.
That’s all true for disabled people, too.
Every year when the winter holiday season rolls around, I’m excited — it means seeing my friends and family, pulling together at least a couple of holiday parties, making desserts, eating tons of gravy, and having an excuse to give gifts — but I’m also nervous about accessibility. Fortunately, my friends and family have always been supportive during the holidays and beyond. Here are some ways you can support your disabled friends and family members and make sure the holidays aren’t stressful:
1. Make your plans as accessible and inclusive as you can.
This is true of more than just disabilities. Emily Ladau, who has Larsen syndrome and is editor-in-chief of Rooted in Rights’ blog, says, “Because I'm Jewish, I started experiencing feelings of exclusion during the holiday season as a young girl, long before I recognized that my disability also played a role in being left out of holiday festivities.”
Whenever possible, make sure everything you’re planning this holiday season is welcoming and accessible.
It’s helpful if you talk to your disabled loved ones to see what works for them.
Do they need grab bars in the bathroom or ramp access? Are they fine without a mobility aid in the house but need to make sure they have a stable chair in which to sit? Would it be helpful if they could go into another room and lay down if they’re in pain or having sensory overload?
“If there are going to be games or other group activities, make sure that they are accessible to everyone,” says Aidee Campa, a recent college graduate who is blind. “This might look like buying Braille or large print board games, or having group activities that don’t exclusively rely on sight or mobility for their appeal.”
My family and friends have always been great at figuring out accessibility, even if at times it’s a little DIY (like carrying a wheelchair user over a small set of stairs or helping them pop a wheelie over a doorway). They’ve been considerate of my dietary needs at events and parties, making sure there’s something on the menu I can eat and preparing appetizers and meals with me in mind. My partner’s aunt even once cooked me an egg white omelet because I have an egg sensitivity, and she didn't want me to feel left out of Christmas morning breakfast.
2. Come to us or meet at a neutral location.
It’s understandable though frustrating that people’s homes can’t always be accessible. I live in a first-floor apartment built in the early 1900s, and there are three stairs to get inside. So if that’s the case, and it’s too much of a burden to ask your disabled loved ones to constantly meet where you live, offer to visit them!
I love when people ask if they can come over, although this isn’t a universal response and hosting might be exhausting for some people. It gives me a chance to relax because I know I won’t have to do any traveling, and I can focus all my energy on resting and getting ready for my guest. And I know my home is accessible to my needs, which is a huge stress relief.
We can also meet somewhere public or semi-public, too. “Many private homes are inaccessible to disabled people. I often prefer to meet somewhere I've been before, so I know it's accessible for me,” says Grace Lapointe, a published writer from Massachusetts who has cerebral palsy. “New environments can be daunting, and I often call to ask about accessibility in advance.”
I’ve met people at accessible restaurants, bars, coffee shops, museums, parks (weather permitting), and shopping centers. If there’s an option that works best for you and whoever you’re meeting, it can be a welcome change from hanging at home, especially if that home isn’t the most accessible.
3. Just check in with us.
This one sounds so easy, and that’s because it is! If I’m being honest, winter is when I’m the loneliest and need the most reassurance and love. Part of that is because my disability is hard to manage in the winter. My pain levels go up, I have more brain fog, I’m sleepier, the roads are wet and icy, it’s harder to navigate with a cane outside, and I have a very low tolerance for the cold.
It helps a lot if you check in with your disabled friends and family every once in a while. Call us or text us. Send us a Facebook message. Ask us how our day was. Tell us something funny you read. Engage us in a conversation about a new movie. It doesn’t have to be disability-related, and it probably shouldn’t always be. Just be yourself, and we’ll be ourselves.
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4. Offer to bring us food, shovel our driveways, or do our dishes.
You know what sucks sometimes? Keeping up with your life when you’re disabled. I mean, it can be pretty damn exhausting, especially if the winter, when access ramps are piled with snow, doorways are clogged, holiday shoppers are trampling all over the place, and everything is icy and cold. There are times when I don’t get to the grocery store, and I just order delivery instead.
“When it has rained really heavily during the winter, my friends have made sure I can get around without getting drenched or blown over by a strong wind,” says Campa. You can offer your support by pushing a friend’s wheelchair through the ice or snow so you two can go shopping together or holding on to someone with mobility issues so they don’t slip and fall while taking out the trash.
If you have the time, resources, and energy, it can be kind and thoughtful bring a disabled friend or family member food, help us shop, assist with household chores, or just ask if we need anything. We might not — but knowing that you care enough to ask speaks volumes.
5. Have authentic and meaningful holiday conversations with us.
I mean this is the best way possible, but nondisabled people tend to oversimplify disabled people's’ lives. We’re often reduced to a binary spectrum from inspiring to pitiable, and there’s nothing in between.
Either we’re inspirational simply because we do anything “in spite of” our disabilities or we’re worth pitying because of everything we can’t do.
The holidays are a particularly difficult time because of all the small talk. I know I see people every year at that time who I do not see year-round. These are friends of the family and extended family members with whom I don’t really have a close relationship.
It can be a challenging time of year for many people, including millennials and disabled people (yikes if you’re both like I am) because we can’t always answer small talk questions in the linear fashion people expect us to. When am I going to finish college? What am I doing with my life? Do I have a full-time job yet? How’s my apartment hunt going? Disability can complicate these questions, and while I’m not saying you can never ask us these things, just be mindful.
Personally, I’d love to do away with small talk because I’d rather discuss what book I’m currently reading, any research I’m doing for an upcoming article, my fiction writing, where I take walks, or how my cats are than the minutiae of my detailed career plans.
6. Try to be understanding when we’re late — or if we have to cancel.
I hate to say it because I’ve always considered being early an important part of my reliability, but: My disability sometimes makes me late. Especially in the morning, there are times when I know I need to sleep an extra hour because of pain or fatigue. Or I know I need more time before I get behind the wheel and drive. Or I need to just lay down and let pain medication kick in and have a little food first.
Even though I know I’m a repeat offender (and yes, I do use that trick of pretending I need to be ready before I do, and it works unless my disability messes with my plans), I’m just asking for a little empathy and forgiveness. If I do have a valid excuse and am not going to ruin something if I’m late, try to let it go.
Similarly, if your disabled friend or family member needs to cancel, even at the last minute, for health reasons, offer forgiveness and keep inviting us, even if we sometimes do flake out. “Understand that my stamina and health fluctuate, and that I might plan to attend but realize that I can't the same day,” says Lapointe. “Most importantly, never make the decision for your disabled friends or family as to whether they'll attend a holiday event. Invite them and figure it out,” notes Ladau, and that’s true whether your venue is inaccessible or you know we’ve had recent surgery: It’s still our decision.
We really want to be there, but maybe we can’t. It could be anything from a fibromyalgia flare-up to an autism meltdown to a panic attack that’s keeping us away, but trust us when we say we wanted to come, and we’re sorry.