Inviting someone with a disability to a dinner at your home can feel like a daunting prospect if you haven’t done it before. Don’t exclude someone just because they are in a wheelchair and there are steps to your front door, there are ways around these things. Also don’t assume that someone can negotiate your home environment without hitting any obstacles just because they don’t have a visible impairment. Being inclusive is a great thing, but try to go one step further and add some invisible support to get rid of some pesky common barriers those with a disability or chronic illness face.
Invitations and arrivals
The best time to ask about special requirements is right at the start. If you are unsure about what support someone may need, ask them discreetly, ideally when alone and not in front of a group of people. Ask specific questions rather than just asking if they would need anything. For example, ask a wheelchair user if they prefer transferring out of their chair or not. Ask someone if they can tolerate some gluten or if cross-contamination is a problem. Start thinking from the moment they arrive outside of their house. Reserve a parking space for anyone with reduced mobility near the entrance.
- Make sure all guests know where the bathroom is and have access to it by clearing clutter and widening paths by moving furniture back if possible.
- Use high contrast colours, particularly to outline indoor walk ways and indicate seating areas. Use dark coloured tableware against light coloured table cloths or vice versa when dining.
- Use descriptive language, but do not use colour as an indicator, for example, don’t say “have a seat in the blue chair” as colour blindness is quite common.
- Provide a medium amount of light ideally through scattered lamps instead of overhead lights. Make sure there is enough light to eat by, but don’t have the light so bright that it reflects off the dining room decor. If you know that a guest invited is sensitive to light, place them in the darkest spot in the room with light behind them and avoid forcing them to look into light. If you have a guest with a significant visual impairment, place them near a light source, think about adding some candles or table lights near their seat at the table.
- Provide adequate light so that body language and lips are easy to read and remain in their line of sight when speaking.
- Give someone a light touch on the shoulder, arm or hand to get their attention before starting to speak or wait until they are looking at you.
- Use gestures when talking and look at someone so that they can see your facial expression.
- If someone isn’t hearing well, don’t raise your volume, enunciate clearly, talk slower and rephrase what you are saying instead of just repeating something when someone didn’t hear the first time.
- Some people hear better with one ear than the other, place them at the dining room table so that the person they are mostly likely to talk to is seated on their good side and if possible, put them at the table spots that are closer together
- Minimize background noise
Restricted mobility and wheelchair users
- Provide a path at least 36″ (915mm) wide to important areas to and within a room
- Provide a turning circle in the room of 1.5 metres for wheelchairs
- Manual wheelchairs can usually get over one or two steps with an attendant to help, whilst electric wheelchairs require flat level access and can’t do any steps at all
- If steps are a problem, ask if a wheelchair user can do some steps, many can and have someone at hand to carry in their wheelchair. If you have some open space at the bottom and top of a few steps, ask if they have a portable ramp, some users do, that they can bring along to use.
- Some wheelchair users prefer to transfer out of the wheelchair. Leave space next to a chair for transfer from a wheelchair to a more comfortable chair and have a spot ready nearby to store the wheelchair. If your guest prefer to remain in their chair, remove a chair before anyone arrives to leave a seat at the table for them, ideally positioned in the spot that has the most floor space around it.
- Reserve a sturdy comfortable chair with a firm back and arms for anyone with restricted mobility who struggled to get up and sit down.
Reduced grip and tremor
- If a choice is available, provide all guests with cutlery that has a large sturdy base that is easier to grip and can be used with either hand.
- Some people have their own custom cutlery, return it to them washed before the end of the evening.
Create a welcoming atmosphere
- Don’t box anyone in. Make sure everyone can get to their seats and out without needing someone else to get up and move out of the way
- Have a quiet place ready. Many people need some time out, either as a result of overwhelm or if fatigue is a problem, a short rest away from conversation can make all the difference. Set up a quiet place away from the crowd, with a comfortable recliner or even in a bedroom, with some interesting books or magazines and dim lighting so that someone can retreat inconspicuously if they need to.
- Set up small conversation areas around the room or even across multiple rooms before moving to the table. Social noise can be overwhelming and some people do better talking to just one or two people at a time in a quieter environment.
- Introduce people or use their names as they arrive. Some people have difficulty recognizing or placing people out of context and this would help them a great deal.
- Provide some structure but not too much. Let people know what will be happening and what time food will be served and where.
- Try narrowing down options if you get a blank stare as answer to the question: “What would you like to drink?” by offering specific beverages as options.
- If there will be any loud noises, like champagne corks, party poppers or crackers, provide plenty of warning and the option to leave the room.
Show compassion for invisible disability and variable symptoms
There is always some complexity that surrounds everything going very well. The “but you don’t look sick now” conundrum. Many people have invisible symptoms and disability, like severe chronic pain or fatigue. Many with invisible impairments make use of some visible aids that highlight their disability, like a wheelchair, crutches or splints some of the time or even most of the time. Some people unfamiliar with disability can feel as if someone is faking or exaggerating when the visible aspects appear and disappear because they associate disability with the aid and not the person. A person in a wheelchair is disabled. If said person then shows up at a party without the wheelchair, it causes all sorts of issues.
Be kind, be compassionate and as the host, try to defuse potential stress by encouraging people to see the person and not their aids or disability. Social events hold the possibility of success and disaster, of being enthralled or bored senseless, making new friends or getting drunk and saying the wrong thing. Some people love them, other people hate them and most people worry a little about not getting it right. Stop worrying, invite everyone, make allowances for specific requirements, whether it’s inviting a vegan or a friend with a debilitating chronic illness, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect. Above all, ask the expert. Most people can and are quite happy to explain what they may need and are happy to provide as much help as you may need to include them.