When people think about the holidays, they think about the togetherness and festivities, mostly. The holiday parties hosted my friends and family and the Christmas get-togethers. And I think about that, too! I love getting together with friends and family, especially if it involves any excuse to wear a cute dress that’s been sitting in my closet. But it’s a little more complicated than that. For me, a time centered around celebrating at people’s houses also centers around thinking about the accessibility of those houses… or often, the lack of it.
Pittsburgh is a city of many, many hills, and of many, many houses built into those hills. It’s not a city that’s easy for wheelchair accessibility. So while most people who get a party invite just have to think about what to wear or what to bring the host, I have to think of all of that plus the least awkward way of asking if I can get into their house. Being able to visit friends and family at their homes is something that most people just take for granted, but I actually assume that I can’t get in most places in Pittsburgh! So if I’m invited to the house of a new friend or a coworker, the first thing I have to do is ask some accessibility questions. And this assumes that I’m even invited at all! Sometimes people don’t want to make me feel bad so they just don’t send me an invitation… and then I feel twice as bad. I’d always rather know that I was wanted, even if I ultimately can’t go.
It can be a little odd and uncomfortable, honestly, even now, when I’ve been doing it years and years. I don’t want to imply that they forgot about my wheelchair… but invitations don’t often come with accessibility information, and truthfully, sometimes they have forgotten, because it’s not something that they’ve ever had to think about before. Typically, I actually go to Google Maps first, and try to scope things out in the least-stalkery way possible. Then I have a better idea what exactly I’m asking about… is there a back entrance, maybe, that just has one step and I can ramp into? Is there a basement entrance where I could get in, even if I couldn’t get to the rest of the house? People don’t necessarily know what is and isn’t possible for me and my wheelchair, so I try to ask the most specific questions that I can to get the most useful information. Even if I’m able to get in, I can almost guarantee that the bathroom isn’t accessible (either too small, or on a different level of the house), so I have to plan my timing, and what I drink, very carefully.
Sometimes, I care enough about going that I’ll go through this… and sometimes, I decide it’s just not worth the effort and decline. Mostly, it means that we’ve created our own set of holiday traditions over the years, centered around celebrating at my family’s house, where it’s guaranteed to be accessible. I love those parties – they are truly the highlight of my year, and so much fun. They’ve become a tradition for not only my family, but for our friends and extended family too, and that’s an amazing thing. But I think that I’ll always have a little bit of FOMO, wondering what parties I’m missing out on and what memories are being made without me.
And all of this, of course, is on a typical year, when COVID isn’t a concern. Because even though much of the world has moved on from COVID precautions, I can’t – no party is worth the risk of ending up in the hospital. But it just makes things so much more challenging. Now, I don’t need to worry just about steps to a house – I need to worry about the number of people that are going, if I think they’re being “careful,” (which is almost impossible to define!), and if it’s a risk that I can comfortably take. Almost always, the answer is no. And this isn’t something that can be solved by hosting everyone at our house, either! So the FOMO continues, and we come up with new, different traditions to make the holidays still feel special – last year, we went to DC for Christmas (and spent a lot of time in the hotel). It’s much easier to not feel like you’re missing out when you’re traveling and doing something different! We adjust. We adapt. We always will.
But I guess this is just a gentle reminder – this holiday season and beyond – to be mindful of your disabled friends and family members. Ask them what works best for them, and how they’d like to be included. It’s the act of reaching out – of being mindful of everyone’s particular needs, whatever they are – that matters the most. That’s how you make someone feel like they’re a part of your life during the holidays.