At a wedding in Maui, blue painters tape lined the aisle. It was a solution put in place by the planner to help the bride’s father, who had a number of mobility issues, gauge the space where he needed to walk.
“He felt really bad like, ‘Oh no, I’m messing up the aisle.' Of course, no one cared about that,” shares Aleah Purcell Valley, co-founder of Valley & Company Events in Seattle. But, the photographer reassured him that he could photoshop the tape out of the photos. They also built in extra time throughout the event’s itinerary to allow for the father of the bride to take small rests when he needed to. “We made sure dad felt like he wasn’t a burden. He wanted to make sure the couple felt like it was their day—he cared about that, and we cared about him. We wanted to make sure he felt a part of the show,” she adds. At a different wedding, the father of the bride broke his foot before the wedding, so the team got a golf cart so he could easily move around the property.
Small gestures like that can make a huge impact for a person who has a physical disability or a mobility issue—it can be the difference between a guest or close family member enjoying a wedding and feeling anxious about it. “For us, it's always about making sure that if a venue doesn't have accessibility for guests, we have our team looking out,” says Purcell Valley.
And, speaking of venues, it’s the first area Purcell Valley recommends looking at when trying to plan an accessible wedding, especially if you know you have guests coming who have disabilities. Boston-based occupational therapist Erin Fitzgibbons notes that most conventional venues like a hotel or banquet hall will likely be ADA (Adults with Disabilities Act) compliant, which means they will have things like ramps, restroom stalls with bars, and elevators. And, these ADA requirements are a good place to start if you’re looking to make your outdoor or at-home wedding accessible. After all, guest comfort is of the utmost importance when planning any wedding, says Purcell Valley.
One thing she recommends for all weddings is having ushers as guests arrive to the ceremony. These greeters can help usher all guests to their seats and pay any special attention to those who need more help or who have a designated seat. Another general rule of thumb would be to always provide transportation—whether it be golf carts or buses—for all guests if there is a decent distance to travel on the property. Don’t just let “guests fend for themselves if it’s a more challenging property,” reminds Purcell Valley, noting an upcoming wedding she’s planning on a private lake estate with a steep slope.
“We have elderly guests, and they are being shuttled. Knowing it's harder for people with a hip issue, crutches, or a wheelchair to go up and down slopes or even grass, make sure there are those callouts on invitation to let people know what the situation is. Send out newsletters to guests letting them know,” she recommends. And, because considerations like this are there for everyone, it’s a way to be thoughtful without singling a certain person out—“making sure everyone is cared for and attended to and feels special,” as Purcell Valley puts it. This is something she and Fitzgibbons say is key.
Guest communication, Purcell Valley says, should be a top priority when planning any wedding. But, it’s even more important when it comes to making sure guests of all physical abilities will feel comfortable as you can warn them of difficult terrain, as in the example above, or about what type of transportation there will be etc. This can help guests plan or reach out if they have questions or concerns.
In that same vein, Fitzgibbons notes that if you know one or more of your guests has a physical disability or a special need, contact them in advance. “If you're comfortable and have a relationship with them, talk to them and ask them questions,” she says. “Some people might feel uncomfortable approaching someone about the subject, but in a lot of cases if it’s done in a respectful way, it shows you're being considerate of their needs.”
“Considerations” and “needs” are two key words that Fitzgibbons talks about when it comes to creating accessible spaces. “Think about what everyone needs to be able to do to access the wedding without much external support,” she offers. She suggests starting with thinking about the basic necessities for enjoying a wedding, and then follow that with extra considerations to make the event all the more enjoyable.
With that in mind, here are some tips for how you can make your wedding inclusive and accessible.
Meet the Expert
The top priority you should ensure when planning a wedding is you can fit all needs for people of all abilities. Here are some essentials.
The number one basic need to think about is something that may not be at the top of your mind. In order for a guest to attend your wedding, they must be able to easily access the restroom. If you are hosting at an indoor venue, make sure that there are bathrooms on the same floor as the main events of the wedding and that they are ADA compliant. Also, have your wedding coordinator or greeter inform guests of where they are if it is not immediately obvious, especially if someone is blind or has low vision. If you are planning an outdoor wedding and are bringing in portable restrooms, make sure they are big enough to fit a wheelchair or two people as some people require assistance. If they are raised, make sure there is a ramp, and also that they are well lit.
A major component of a wedding is the meal. Make sure all the tables are the right height for a wheelchair, and the same goes for a buffet table if you have one. You also should ask for dietary restrictions of all guests in your RSVP to have accessible options on the menu.
As mentioned above, do not assume that all your guests can move freely around a property. You never know what challenges people may have, especially if it is not outwardly apparent. So, make sure there is minimal walking involved, and for those times when there is a long distance to go, provide transportation to all guests.
In some cases, it may be required to go up and down floors. In these cases, make sure there is an elevator and that all guests know where it is. That being said, Purcell Valley does not recommend hosting too much of your day’s event on an upstairs floor of your venue because even with an elevator, it can create a bottleneck and waiting for the elevator can take up a lot of guests’ time.
Vows and Speeches
Guests will not have the full wedding experience if they miss out on the vows and speeches. If you have guests who are deaf or hard of hearing, consider a sign language interpreter as well as printing out a program that has the ceremony, vows, and speeches transcribed. Also, make sure those guests are seated where they can watch the interpreter if you have one, or allow them to be able to read people’s lips. Microphones during the ceremony may also help.
In addition to essentials to help guests at your wedding, you should also put a few considerations in mind to help make their experience even better.
In order to fully experience a wedding, guests must be able to freely move from the table to the dance floor, bar, and restroom. So, think about this when creating your seating chart. If you have guests in a wheelchair or with mobility challenges, don’t seat them somewhere in the back where they will have to go through a maze of tables and chairs to get anywhere. And, the same goes with those who are vision impaired or blind. If someone has a walker, seat them somewhere where they can leave it next to them at the table or somewhere close by that will not be in the way.
Someone deaf or hard of hearing may benefit from being closer to the speaker to feel the beat of the music, or you may want to ask them if sitting too close might be distracting due to a reverberation from their hearing device. You can research what is known as DeafSace to make guests more comfortable. Another concept of DeafSpace is to make sure people are facing each other as much as possible as facial expressions and lip reading are a powerful communication tool for the hearing impaired
Some guests may not be able to dance or stay on their feet for a long period of time. Fitzbibboms suggests, depending on the setup of the space, setting up some chairs around or near the dance floor so that everyone can feel like they are a part of it.
When it comes to attire for the wedding party (including the couple!), keep adaptive fashion in mind. It’s slowly building momentum as people with disabilities speak up about lack of fashion options. Some brands like Tommy Hilfiger, IZ, and FFORA, which makes stylish purses and accessories for wheelchairs, are creating adaptive fashions, but there is a long way to go. Open Style Lab is a non-profit style incubator focused on creating more.
Keep these details in mind: two pieces may be easier for someone to get into, while a one-piece slip-on style may be better for others. Magnetic closures and side clasps can be helpful for differently abled people. Communicate with your party so that you can best accommodate their clothing needs. IZ, as an example, sells a stylish suit jacket that’s cut for a seated wearer; the brand also offers chic peacoats and capes with magnetic closures for outerwear. Zappos has a whole line of adaptive footwear and clothing, and Slick Chicks is a brand of adaptive undergarments for women.
Also, consider building in extra time to get ready before the ceremony so that no one feels rushed or anxious about getting dressed. If you know someone will need a little more time, let them get their hair and makeup done first.
You may also want to add a section to the bar that is a lower height for those in wheelchairs. Another idea would be to instruct your wait staff to periodically check in on tables to see if anyone needs a drink brought to them.
An outdoor lawn wedding may pose more challenges than one on flat solid ground for people with mobility issues. Consider putting down a path or runway for easier walking as guests arrive at the ceremony and reception. If it rains and the ground is muddy, this becomes even more important. No guest will want to get muddy, but those who use wheelchairs may find themselves getting stuck and needing assistance, or, if it’s a manual wheelchair, getting mud on their hands.
Visual or Tactile Cues
For those with low vision, a brightly colored sticker or piece of tape can help mark a raised dance floor or a step, suggests Fitzgibbons. Similarly, for a casual wedding with coolers, colored or textured stickers can help demarcate which type of beverage you will find inside.
Everyone doesn’t always get a plus one to a wedding, but if you have a guest who needs assistance doing certain things like using the restroom, for example, they may need to bring an aid, friend, or family member to join them at the event. Take this into consideration when building your guest list.