Be Inclusive for the Holidays!
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Here are my tips for Including People with disABILITIES in the Holiday Season
Summary: 1. Be open-minded! 2. Educate yourself 3. Share the knowledge 4. Anticipate the needs of ALL guests 5. Plan structured Social Activities 6. Do NOT expect perfection! Blog: 1. Be open-minded! People with disABILITIES have been cast aside, hidden, and ignored for SO LONG that most people don’t understand them anymore! It doesn’t feel normal to see someone with Autism or Down Syndrome walking next to you at Walmart, much less at a Holiday Party! But if YOU are in charge of planning ANY party during the winter season, then I assume you are a seasoned host --which means that you have the POWER to lead your guests into a bigger, better, and more inclusive future! But in order to do that, you need to start with an open mind. Because including people with disabilities on your guest list, whether that means inviting your friend’s son who happens to have an Intellectual Disability (ID), or including students with disabilities in your school-wide holiday party, means that you’re going to have to do things a little bit differently, and you’re going to have to expect the unexpected! 2. Educate yourself Depending on your situation, you could make this really personalized or super general. But you SHOULD know a little bit about disability if you are planning an inclusive event. Now, if you’re planning for ONE person (i.e., your friend’s son with ID), then you could easily ask your friend to tell you more about their son. What does he like? What are some of his challenges? Is there anything that YOU can prepare beforehand that might help him feel comfortable and safe? If you’re planning for a bigger group (i.e. students with disabilities on a school campus), you can’t possibly plan for each student’s individual needs, BUT what you can do is ask their special education teachers or case managers for tips and input, and you should also do some research on your own to brush up on your “disability” knowledge. There’s so much on the internet, and A LOT of it is intense and ugly to look at! I suggest googling simple phrases like “What is Intellectual Disability?”, “Down Syndrome symptoms”, “Strategies for Autism”, etc. This will give you super quick and easy information that you could even copy and paste into your event plans! 3. Share the knowledge This can happen in a variety of ways depending on your situation. In some cases, you may want to have a pre-meeting with some of your guests and teach them what you’ve learned about disability so that they feel prepared to support you in being more inclusive. But that’s not always possible or appropriate. You may just decide to have your guests show up and expect that they will all be inclusive without prompting. But even in this scenario, you should be prepared for questions such as, “what the heck is that guy doing?”, “what’s wrong with him?”, or “OMG did you see that weirdo?” And YOU, as the host of an Inclusive extravaganza, should be prepared with a quick and easy spiel that will shut down any hate and help people to understand some of what you have already learned through your research. It can be something as simple as this: “That’s Mr. Stephen. He has some learning differences, but he’s just as great as any of my other guests. I’m so happy to have him at the party. You should say hi to him!.” 4. Anticipate the needs of ALL guests Any good host knows that rule numero uno is accommodating the guests! This is ESPECIALLY true during the winter holidays! And we pretty much know what they want! Good food --lots of it. Good drinks --or ANY drinks, really --and lots of it. And depending on your group, there might be a whole list of other preferences and expectations. But most people don’t take into account the needs of people with disabilities. This is ESPECIALLY important if you’re hosting a community event! If your event isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, they won’t show up OR they won’t stay long --in other words, you’re EXCLUDING an entire population of awesome individuals. Here are some of my suggestions for easy blanket accommodations you could plan for that would make your event more inclusive: (1) create a visual agenda so that guests can see what’s going on from start to finish, and they can prepare themselves for each of the events (2) have noise cancelling ear gear on hand for anyone who can’t handle loud music (3) designate a small “calm” space for anyone who might need to step away from the crowds/chaos for a few minutes (4) incorporate a variety of activities, like dancing, karaoke, art, music, contests, games, etc. so that there’s a little something for everyone 5. Plan structured Social Activities Some of your guests may be fine with mingling and chatting around the room, but people with disabilities (and people in general) often struggle in social situations. Creating structured social activities, like games, team activities or pair activities, “speed dating” conversations without the dating, any of the activities that I mentioned in tip number 4, or really anything to get people talking to each other will provide built in support so that anyone who’s not super social doesn’t feel excluded, awkward, or alone at the party! That’s literally my worst nightmare! 6. Do NOT expect perfection! This should be true regardless of how Inclusive your party is --but when it comes to Inclusion, we need to remember that this is new for a lot of people --and it might be new for you as well! So things might happen that may feel wrong or weird or silly or “off” --but YOU need to model acceptance, understanding, and a calm demeanor for your guests. Because it’s true --some disabilities impact a person’s impulse control, their behaviors, their ability to cope with change, fear, anxiety, etc. And they might do things that we aren’t used to seeing.
So what do you do if you have a guest with Autism who becomes overstimulated and flips a table? FIRST OF ALL this is an EXTREME and highly UNLIKELY situation, just so you know. BUT, if it WERE to happen, the worst thing you could do would be to freak out, get mad, kick him/her out, etc. Because then you are sending the message to ALL of your guests that “if you aren’t like us, then you can’t be here”, “People who are different do not belong in public”, and “if you can’t hide your disability, then you need to leave” Also, if this is the son or daughter of a friend or loved one, you are sending them similar messages. “If you can’t control your child, don’t come to my parties”, which is as far away from Inclusion as you can get.
We NEED to change the way that we perceive disABILITY. “Weird”, “different”, “uncomfortable” behaviors are the hardest thing for most of us to understand. But many times it’s not something that can be cured or “controlled” --at least not in the way that we see with people who are typically developing. Obviously you won’t be happy about the flipped table, especially if there’s a mess on the ground or expensive items that were broken, but life happens and life goes on. Hakuna Matata. Try to talk to the person if they’re alone. ask them what’s wrong, ask what they need, let them know that they can go to the “calm” space if they need to chillax. If they’re there with a parent or chaperone, let that person know that you’re okay, that they are welcome to de escalate and rejoin the party, and MOST importantly , let them know that they should NOT feel guilty about what happened. Show your guests that you understand. Some of them will judge you and say things behind you back like, “they’re just gonna let him do that?”, “Aren’t they going to kick him out?”, “There should be bigger consequences for this!” TRUST ME! As an Ability Advocate and Special Education teacher, people say that about me pretty much every single day of my life. But I just ignore them. Because they don’t understand.
There will also be guests who see what you do and think “WOW! I would have never thought to handle the situation this way!” and YOU just might inspire them to be more inclusive in their own everyday lives! As a host, you’re a leader. And leaders have the power to change the future. So go on with your bad self! Throw the most inclusive holiday party that anyone has ever seen!
Learn more about how you can communicate with people who are deaf/hard of hearing during the holidays and beyond! Read "Communicate with People who are Deaf & Hard of Hearing during the Holidays & Beyond -No ASL Required"