Accessible Entertaining: Making Sure Your Disabled Guests Feel Safe and Welcome in Your Home

Updated February 22, 2019

For most everyone, feeling safe is a requirement for feeling welcome in someone else’s home.

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For people who are physically able and neurotypical, the bar is relatively low. As long as a place is clean, structurally sound, and secure, it’s safe. Food, friends, and fun make a loved one’s home a welcoming environment.

But for people with disabilities, “safe” and “welcoming” are relative terms, and the environment requires closer scrutiny. For the 61 million Americans who are differently abled, safety is knowing that you can enter a space without the risk of hurting yourself, and feeling welcome is being hosted by a friend who is aware and supportive of your unique needs.

All too often, it’s this difference that causes a disabled person’s hesitation to accept an invitation to a gathering — and that causes a host’s hesitation to extend one in the first place. The fear of not being accommodated and the fear of not being able to accommodate can be overwhelming. The good news is that with good communication and a few, simple steps, you can bridge the barrier, eliminate the fear, and get the party started.

Ask First

The first step of hosting a guest with disabilities should always be to ask that person how you can better accommodate them. By being the one to bring up accessibility, you are accomplishing two very important things. First, you are relieving your friend or loved one with a disability of having to initiate the conversation. In an ableist society, it is almost always the responsibility of a differently-abled person or their caregiver to ask about accessibility and accommodations. Second, and perhaps most importantly, you are showing them that you care about their safety and well-being and that you want them to feel welcome in your home.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea to ask everyone you’re inviting if they have any special needs. Some disabilities are more subtle than others, and some are completely hidden. You can include a line on the invitation, send a quick text, or simply ask your guests over the phone if they need any special accommodations. This simple question opens the door for your neighbor with epilepsy to ask if she can bring her service animal, your friend with celiac disease to request a gluten-free dinner option, or your cousin with scent sensitivities to tell you he needs a scent-free soap in the restroom. As a result, these guests can RSVP with a resounding “yes,” knowing their biggest concerns have already been addressed.

In addition to fulfilling these specific requests, there are some things you can plan to do without asking, particularly if you know your guest well enough to understand some of his or her accessibility challenges. The tactics below are broad, easy-to-implement, unobtrusive ways to make your friend, loved one, or colleague feel safe and welcome without making them feel uncomfortable or singled out.

Cognitive Conditions

From autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) to genetic conditions, like Down syndrome, cognitive conditions vary greatly from person to person and ability to ability, as do their symptoms. One commonality that many of these conditions share is the tendency to become overstimulated. As you can imagine, events with a lot of people, loud music or conversation, and excessive stimuli can result in overwhelm. You can take the following measures to address these challenges before they happen.

  • Set expectations. Call your guest prior to the gathering, and go over the details of the event. Talk about how many people will be there, what the atmosphere will be like, and how the schedule will play out. Invite your friend to arrive and leave whenever they feel most comfortable, and ask them if they have any suggestions to make the event easier for them to attend.

  • Provide a safe space. The ultimate entertainers at Disney have break areas set up for guests on the autism spectrum and those with cognitive impairments. According to their website, “Should a Guest with a cognitive disability become over-stimulated or need some down time, several quieter locations are available throughout the Resort where he or she can ‘take a break.’” You can offer your guests the same benefit by setting up a room in your home to be a calm and quiet escape. Choose a room with calming paint colors, dim the lighting, and set up a comfy space where your guest can sit or lie down to rest. Be sure to show them the room before the party begins, and let them know they are welcome in that space.

wheelchair accessible sign

Physical Disabilities

When most people receive an invitation to an event or party at your home, they wonder if there will be food. When someone with a mobility issue or motor impairment receives one, they wonder if there are steps leading to the door, if they will be able to navigate the walkways and gathering areas, and whether the bathroom is accessible. While no guest would expect you to remodel your home, there are several basic modifications you can make to ensure your space is as accessible as possible.

  • Choose an accessible location within your home. If you can only access your basement via narrow stairs or by going around the house and through the yard, it may not be the best space for your gathering. Host your event on the main floor instead. If the weather is nice, consider having your event outdoors, as long as the area you’re using is navigable and well-lit.

  • Provide parking. Make it easy for your guest to park nearby, leave ample room on either side of their vehicle for ramps or other assistive devices, and clear walkways leading to the home of debris. Save the spot by enlisting your teenager as a parking attendant or by simply asking other guests to park on the roadway to leave the driveway clear.

  • Pay particular attention to entryways. If your guest has trouble entering your home, they will immediately feel less than comfortable. A permanent ramp is probably not an option, and a makeshift ramp is never a good idea, but there are portable ramps available for rent or purchase online. If you ask in advance, you may even be able to borrow one from your guest.

  • Rearrange the furniture. Even if your guest is not in a wheelchair, more room to move is better, especially if there will be a lot of people in the space. Move furniture toward the walls to make the walkways bigger, and remove rugs that can cause tripping. While you’re at it, add a few extra lamps to keep the room well-lit without harsh overhead lighting.

  • Provide ample seating. Your guests with physical disabilities may not have the ability to stand and mingle for the duration of the evening. Not only can you offer enough seating for all of your visitors, but you can also encourage your guests to use it.

  • Install temporary modifications. Restrooms are an area of particular concern. Suction and stick-on grab bars are an easy, cost-effective, temporary way to help your guests feel safe in your an unfamiliar space. Just make sure they are securely fastened prior to use.


Low Hearing and Impaired Vision

Parties with loud music, low lights, and lots of chatter may seem fun and exciting. For a person with low hearing or impaired vision, however, it’s exactly the opposite. If you want to remove hazards for your guests and allow everyone to feel more at ease, focus on making the space easy to navigate and managing sound levels.

  • Light the way. For more light without ruining the mood, add more lamps and task lighting to your gathering space. Holiday lights also work well! You can also install stick-on, push-activated lights or run rope lighting along indoor walkways. Just make sure they are not tripping hazards.

  • Separate activities. Consider assigning dedicated rooms for conversation, music, party games, and other entertainment. Not only will doing so help control the noise levels, it will allow guests to interact with people who have similar interests.

  • Turn on the captions. If you’re watching a movie, streaming the fight, or playing TV-based party games, using captions will ensure your guest with low hearing doesn’t miss anything. Another option is to invest in a pair of bluetooth headphones that allow your guest to control their own volume while still allowing sound through the television speakers.

Of course, your work doesn’t end when the party starts. Pay attention to your guest throughout the event, and don’t be offended if they arrive late, leave early, or choose not to attend at the last minute. It may just be a bad day. If your guest doesn’t end up coming to your event, don’t hesitate to offer an alternative opportunity to get together. Sometimes, it really is the thought that counts. The fact that you are aware of and advocating for your loved one’s needs and desires is one of the most thoughtful ways to show them you care.

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