Making Christmas EasierPublished on: 18 December 2020
For many disabled people, Christmas can be a difficult and lonely time. According to the Office of National Statistics, the proportion of disabled people reporting feeling lonely ‘often or always’ is almost four times that of non-disabled people.
The leading learning disability charity, Mencap, has also crucially identified that people with learning disabilities are seven times more likely to feel lonely in comparison to non-disabled peers. This feeling can come from something as simple as considering whether able to attend work Christmas drinks, whether the venue is accessible and who to ask at work to ensure that it is. If it isn’t, that person can feel like a burden or a nuisance to their colleagues.
The bad weather can also mean that many have to stay indoors. Have you ever tried to push a wheelchair through snow and ice, or steer an electric wheelchair through wet leaves that haven’t been swept away? It can only be compared to hitting black ice with your car – terrifying and dangerous. The overcrowding of bars, restaurants and Christmas markets can make one feel excluded too. People often comment that they ‘didn’t see you down there,’ there’s no chance of ever reaching the bar, and, more often than not, the disabled bathrooms and lifts are being used and abused by non-disabled people because it’s so busy.
People with autism may find the loud sounds of Christmas festivities distressing; going out for a Christmas roast often means being confronted with a lack of easy-to-read menus; Christmas high street shopping is also a no-go due to aisles overloaded with wrapping paper or Christmas knickknacks making it difficult to navigate for anyone in a chair or with a visual impairment; care facilities often face staff shortages during the Christmas break, leaving some without the care they need and resulting in a lack of independence. Often communicated with significant behaviour changes, the underlying message might be:
“You changed my schedule.”
“Why did you put a tree in our living room?”
“There are too many people stuffed into this room.”
“I am on complete sensory overload.”
While all of these ideas won’t work for everyone, here are some ideas for you to try to create a positive time of celebration for each family member.
Who Needs to Know?
Many times extended families get together, and yet cousins or friends may not really understand the individual with the disability. It might be helpful for parents or the person with the disability to send out a quick update to family members prior to an event.
“It Is Better to Give than to Receive”
Often we think our family member with a disability should only be the recipient of gifts, and not the giver. How can that person use an area of interest or gifting to provide something for others? Would it be the gift of a dance or song? Could that individual provide the cakes for dessert? Might that person enjoy a trip to a local shop to choose something for each guest or family member? Find a way for that individual to also receive the joy of giving.
Prepare in Advance
What is the best way for your family member participate in the holiday traditions? Be creative. Think of ways you have made the holiday meaningful and consider ways your family member with a disability may be involved.
Put Together a Schedule of Events for Your Party
Whether in words and/or pictures, let the person know the planned order. Some individuals enjoy crossing off or removing the individual schedule items as they are completed.
Visit the Room Ahead of Time
Many times we redecorate or rearrange rooms to fit in more people. Consider setting it up a day ahead and visiting that room without people in it. Let the individual explore the changes without the added stress of people. Perhaps leave something on a chair or in a certain place so that you can “reserve a spot” for the event when you arrive. The individual will know to find that space or item to make a more comfortable entry.
Give That Individual a “Job” to Do
Perhaps they could be the photographer, back massager, coffee or beverage server, greeter (be the first to arrive and assimilate guests more slowly – often a better choice for some), or card distributor. A helping role will not only use the gifts of an individual, but also gives the person a clear sense of what to do in that environment.
Designate a “Safe Zone”
It might be helpful to show that family member a quiet and designated space in the home or building where there would be a calming and preferred activity. It might be a rocking chair, a favourite book, or quiet classical music in a more isolated space where one might be able to find a refuge if the senses get overloaded.
Everyone should be mindful of those individuals that may feel isolated this festive period. We are becoming more environmentally conscious and have stopped sending Christmas cards, but you can show that you care in other ways. Volunteering in your community is a great way to meet new people and maybe learn from one another. Feeling awkwardness towards disabled people is no longer a valid excuse to isolate and exclude that colleague, neighbour or person in your class, who is part of the disabled community. Making things accessible doesn’t cost the world and can make a big difference in combating isolation. It is important to note that as we approach a new year, disability does not discriminate, and each and every one of us could become disabled at any time. If that were you, how would you want others to treat you?