WASHINGTON (JTA) – With Hanukkah on the way, it’s easy to hold a party where all guests – disabled and not – feel welcomed, respected and have fun. All it takes is some planning. Here are some tips to ensure you are being inclusive, thoughtful and welcoming to all.
1. Don’t be afraid. People with disabilities have their disabilities 24/7, so they know how to create workarounds that make them feel comfortable. If you know someone has a disability, use a simple strategy: Ask them what they need to be fully included. All too often, people with disabilities are not invited to events or don’t go because they are embarrassed to “put someone out” by asking for a simple accommodation. By telling them their presence is valued and asking what they need, you will build a new level of trust and affection. One of the biggest things that aging loved ones need is a ride, so help them find a carpool or send Uber to pick them up and return them home.
2. Ask in advance. Not all disabilities are visible. By including a line about accommodations in the invitation’s RSVP, you are letting guests know that everyone is welcome – including those you might not even know have special needs. It could be as simple as this: “Please let us know if you have dietary restrictions or require other special accommodations to attend. We will do our best to meet special needs.” Note that you aren’t promising to meet all needs. But, for example, if you are unable to find a sign language interpreter, you will be able to let your guest know in advance. Indeed, they may be able to help you find a solution.
3. Ensure physical access. Religious institutions are exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act, so many of them are not fully accessible. If your event is at a venue that is not physically accessible, move it to a place that is. Sometimes that can be as simple as choosing a different room in a synagogue building. Venues should have a ground level entrance or ramp, an elevator if the event is upstairs and accessible bathrooms. Most public places are equipped for people with disabilities. Just check with the venue ahead of time. If you have someone coming who uses a wheelchair, you should also put the menorah on a table low enough for them to reach the candles.
4. Accommodate special diets. You don’t know if guests have allergies, celiac disease or lactose intolerance if you don’t ask on the invitation. Making sure there are food options for everyone can be as simple as picking up a gluten-free cupcake to serve with the regular cake. Many times people with food allergies bring their own food. If you keep kosher and they don’t, you could ask them to bring something vegetarian and offer paper plates and plastic utensils. If you don’t keep kosher, but your guests do, this may be the time to bring in trays of food from a kosher caterer. Let your guests know in advance that dietary laws will be followed.
5. Have a good attitude. People of all ages can be daunted when encountering someone different from them. If it’s a children’s event, try talking to the group before the party starts about kindness and respect for differences. A party is a great opportunity for kids to learn about one another.
6. Involve parents. Parties can be exhausting for the hosts. Asking a parent or two to help out – particularly if it’s a big group – can lighten the load. Parents may feel more comfortable, especially if their child has social anxiety issues, if they are invited to stay or help as an option.
7. Avoid sensory overload. Parties can cause sensory overload for anyone, but for a person with autism or a sensory processing disorder, a party can be really overwhelming. Offer opportunities for guests to take a break, perhaps in a quiet room away from the crowd. Some venues may have options for turning down music or minimizing stimulation. Latex allergies (balloons) and chemical sensitivities (use of highly scented cleaners or staff wearing perfumes) are real issues. Solutions: Use alternative Mylar balloons, ask people to not wear strong scents and choose unscented cleaning products.
8. Learn to communicate. There are lots of ways to include guests who are nonverbal or communicate in other ways, such as American Sign Language or a communication board. Free software can be installed on a tablet computer that instantly transcribes speech into text. An interpreter could be hired, which has the added benefit of letting other guests learn a little sign language. Remember to speak directly to guests, whether they are verbal or not.
9. Be visual. For those with cognitive disabilities or vision impairments, reading a menu or following instructions for a scavenger hunt or keeping a game score sheet can all be challenging. Pictures and verbal instructions are useful, as is pairing disabled children with those who can help. It’s always great to have an extra pair of reading glasses around if you are inviting seniors. You can always tell someone who can’t see or read what they will need or what to know.
10. Have fun. Parties are awesome. Don’t let inclusion stress you out. If you are reading this list and considering these tips, you’re already doing more than most. Stay positive, smile and throw that party.
(Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA, a nonprofit working to ensure that Jews of all abilities are able to have a full Jewish life. Alie Kriofske Mainella is the lead youth independent living services coordinator at IndependenceFirst, a Milwaukee-based organization working for inclusion of people with disabilities.)