Practical ways to make your holiday celebrations accessible to people with disabilities and chronic illnesses

The holiday season can be stressful and frustrating, and it can be even harder when you have a disability. You’re constantly on alert: Will the events I’m invited to be accessible? How many times will I have to say no to something my friends invite me to? Am I going to be plagued by FOMO all season long, watching people post cute photos on Instagram?

If you’re hosting a holiday celebration or event, whether it’s a small party at your home or a large gathering, there are a few things you can do to make sure it’s an accessible holiday party for all of your guests, including people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. This will make your celebration better for everyone involved.

Accessibility isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation.

It means a lot to me when people who are planning events factor in accessibility. It means even more when they’re open to learning that it isn’t always as easy as a yes/no checklist.

Emily Ladau, a writer and disability rights activist, says that when it comes to accessibility, you can never totally remove the person with the disability from the equation. Access needs are so individual and it doesn’t make sense to assume what someone else might need, even if you know them. She says that the burden is often on the disabled person to bring up access needs, so it’s a great idea as the event planner to take that burden off your guests by talking to them about accessibility.

“One of the best things a person could give me is to say, ‘I've already made sure that everything is accessible. Let me run it by you again,' she says. “I'm so constantly on alert when it comes to accessibility that it's nice to know I'm not the only one who's concerned about it. I sometimes worry about ruining someone's festive mood by asking about accessibility, but I shouldn't have to feel that way.

Access is also about more than just wheelchair ramps, and if you want to plan a truly accessible event, you need to think about other considerations. Ladau explains that even if she can get inside someone’s home, she’s often wondering about how she’ll navigate once she’s inside. Can she use the restrooms? How will the food be served? Will it be buffet style on a high table she can’t reach, or will it be easy for her to serve herself?

Robin M. Eames, a queercrip poet and historian, agrees that access needs are individual. “People often don’t think about fragrance as an accessibility issue, but it can present huge problems for people with allergies, asthma, or sensory issues,” Eames says.

Present people with accessibility information upfront—and offer them a way to contact you.

This is especially helpful if you’re planning a larger event where the guests may not all know you personally.

I recently went to a book signing at a local independent bookstore, and I was really grateful for the accessibility information provided. Book signings are usually hard for me as a cane user because I can’t stand in line for hours without experiencing pain. This bookstore offered an accessibility contact so I could have a seat reserved during the talk, and could use a seat to rest while I waited to have my books signed.

“It’s really important to provide access info on your event ahead of time, even (maybe especially) if elements are inaccessible,” says Eames. “If someone asks about something you didn’t think of, don’t get defensive, just listen and then ask what they need and what you can do to help.”

Giving people the information upfront helps them plan for the event in advance. Sometimes, even despite our best efforts, an event may not be fully accessible. Maybe it’s being hosted in someone’s personal home and access needs can’t be met because of the way the space was designed.

It’s not an ideal solution, but Ladau recommends considering alternatives so your guests with disabilities and chronic illnesses feel included. She suggests having events on neutral ground (as opposed to someone’s private residence), or seeing if the person with a disability is willing and able to host it at their home. If that’s what you do, she says, you should offer to help set up the event instead of transferring the burden totally to that person. She also says that if there’s no alternative solution, sometimes it can be helpful to offer another option entirely. You might say, “I’m having this event, and I know it isn’t accessible, but I’d like to spend some time with you. Is there something else we could do together that would be accessible?”

Finding a way to host an event that’s accessible to all your guests is the ideal solution, and you should know that friends or family might be upset if you invite them to an event knowing it won’t be accessible for them. Remember that the holiday season can be emotional for everyone, and disabled and chronically ill people are also constantly navigating an inaccessible world where we are often our only advocates.

It can help a lot just to offer your unconditional support and empathy. “Check in with people. Show them that you care,” Ladau says. “We’re so focused on gift giving and getting into the festivities of the holidays that we don’t take enough time to check in with each other.”