Sweeping staircases may be great for your photos, but not for brides, grooms or guests with disabilities.
In November 2009, my boyfriend Darren surprised me with a romantic proposal over a candlelit dinner. I was ecstatic. But after the celebrations came the questions – when, where and how were we going to get married? As a wheelchair user, I didn’t know where to start with all the preparations. How exactly do you plan an accessible wedding?
We are, of course, not alone in facing this dilemma. Aside from disabled brides and grooms, accessibility is an issue for many couples who need to consider an older or disabled friend or relative. It therefore came as a big surprise how few wedding venues have properly thought through the service that they offer for disabled customers and wedding-goers.
Everything from the hen night and the dress to the venue and the honeymoon needs some serious creative thinking. Contacting other brides-to-be amongst the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Trailblazers, I found women battling to bring their big day together, armed with a flexible approach – and steely determination.
For the venue, we had ruled out a church ceremony. If, like us, you are not particularly religious, it is far easier to spend the whole day at one location for any wheelchair-users in your wedding party. We did some thorough searching online for accessible local hotels, but struggled to find one which met our requirements. The right venue needed to be not only flexible to meet our needs, but also to understand them.
Another bride-to-be, Becky, described how one location proposed to accommodate her disabled grandmother. “They had planned the wedding breakfast to be upstairs, and said that four strong men would carry her and the wheelchair up there. The wedding co-ordinator could not understand my shock at this suggestion! When I asked that the wedding breakfast and reception take place in the marquee outside they simply refused.”
Prospective bride Jessica ran into the age-old problem of wheelchair users having to use a separate entrance – not exactly ideal on your special day. “The majority of venues I contacted were really helpful, but tended not to understand our needs,” she said. “One venue was fully accessible in essence, but it to me it didn’t feel right for the bride to not be able to go through the main entrance.”
After months of painstaking research we found a venue that proves there is no need to scrimp on the romance. Built in 1866 in an elegant Italianate style, it is still wonderfully accessible, with lifts and ramps to all function areas and bedrooms specifically tailored for guests with limited mobility.
On to one of the most important aspects of many brides’ big day – the outfit. Trailblazers member Fran says that finding a dress was her biggest challenge. “One store told me that I would never be able to get married in a wedding dress and would have to choose a bridesmaid dress. I shopped around and found a small retailer which was more than happy to let me try on anything that I wanted. They even recommended a lady that could alter my dress to suit me and the wheelchair.”
After getting stuck in dresses and experiencing well-meaning but unhelpful assistants in bridal boutiques, my mum and I persuaded a local independent shop to let us take some dresses home to try in return for a guarantee. This proved a much more comfortable and enjoyable trying-on experience, but we struggled to find one which would work from a sitting position. Then we found Bridal Dream Dress, which will custom-make any dress to your exact requirements. It was nailbiting waiting for the dress to arrive, but I was delighted with the final result.
Some aspects of creative planning have been fun. Like many disabled brides-to-be, I’ve decided that I don’t want to use the same manual chair that I sit in every day. We’ve sourced a secondhand chair that we will respray, re-upholster and customise to match my dress. For my flowers, instead of carrying a traditional bouquet, which would make pushing my chair difficult, I will have a wrist corsage. As for our first dance, slow dancing from a wheelchair is pretty restrictive. We have decided that we will ask all our wedding guests to join in to an upbeat song, taking the pressure off.
The hen night
I’m now looking ahead to my last night of freedom. For disabled hens, a big night out on the town is problematic. Research by Trailblazers showed that 80% of the 400-strong group experience difficulties using local pubs, clubs, restaurants, bars and music venues. For wheelchair-users, so much research has to be done to find accessible nightspots that it can turn into a military operation – not conducive to hen night fun.
I will be hiring a large accessible cottage in the Lake District for a weekend of eating, drinking and relaxation. The most important thing to me is to have my closest friends together – in an environment where I don’t have to worry about stairs or accessible toilets.
Wedding planning has thrown up some challenges – and ones that I feel very disappointed that disabled women are facing. The UK wedding industry, worth an estimated £5.5bn a year, is still slow to catch on to the bang of the disabled bride’s buck.
• Always visit prospective venues to check out accessibility, and consider taking any wedding guests with access requirements with you.
• Ask about ramps at the venue – they needn’t be an eyesore. Put a runner of material down metal ramps, to fit between your wheels. It won’t skid and will create a good look.
• Don’t rule out a style of dress because you think that it won’t be suitable or accessible until you have tried it on.
• Bear in mind the talents of family and friends – ours are helping us with the cake, hairdressing, stationery and my wheelchair, which makes our day more personal.
• Don’t be afraid to think outside the box to make your day accessible – after all, the best weddings are unique.
Carrie-Ann Fleming is a member of the young disabled campaigners group, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Trailblazersmdctrailblazers.org. She uses a powered wheelchair due to the condition cerebral palsy.