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3 Principles for Including Disabled People in This Year’s Pandemic Holidays

November 19, 2020
Source: Forbes

I started out a week ago to write an article offering practical suggestions for including people with disabilities in safe holiday events, starting with Thanksgiving. It was supposed to be based on the premise that home celebrations with friends and extended family could be relatively safe, if the right precautions were taken and if all of your guests were on the same page about the risks of Covid-19.

I don’t think anyone can write such an article now in good conscience.

With Covid-19 surging again and uncontrolled in most of the U.S., the only really sound advice right now is to plan for holidays alone, or solely with members of your own household. This is doubly important for those of us with disabilities or chronic illnesses that put us at higher risk from Covid-19. While we can all draw hope from the effective vaccines that seem to be on the horizon, it looks like we are in for a rough few months, and a 2020 holiday season shared virtually, not in person.

And yet, making the year end holidays fun, sociable, and inclusive is still possible. We just need to be creative, generous, and willing to sacrifice, just this once, a few of our normal holiday routines, which these days we may be tempted to mistake for inalienable rights. Despite months of “pandemic fatigue,” we need to face up to the fact that one unusual holiday season isn’t that big of an ask, when the alternative for people we love, and for our communities, is potentially so dire.

Back in March, we all hoped that by now we would be planning for the 2020 holidays much as we always do, with the pandemic mostly under control, if not completely behind us. We will probably debate for the rest of our lifetimes exactly why we are seeing another huge surge throughout the world and the U.S. But none of us can seriously doubt that at least one reason is our collective lack of patience or resilience to stay on guard for as long as we needed to. And it also surely didn’t help that a great many of us have managed to dismiss, deny, or distort the significance of Covid-19 itself.

This combination of impatience, denial, and ideological distortion continues to affect the global and U.S. course of the pandemic. But it also drives our individual responses, and how we deal with Covid-19 in our own communities and families. Now we face the holidays, which are always a mix of joy and conflict, in a much more dangerous environment made even worse by conflict over the very nature of the danger we all face.

True, the risk isn’t the same for every person, or every family, in every place. But it should be clear that we can’t pretend things are the same as they were in, say, August, when carefully calibrated risks seemed more reasonable. There are still steps you can take and assessments you can make to plan a somewhat less risky in-person gathering. But the more you dig into these guides and checklists, the more you notice how feeble they really are, and the effort required seems less and less worthwhile.

This line from an Associated Press article sums it up well:

“A safe Thanksgiving during a pandemic is possible, but health experts know their advice is as tough to swallow as dry turkey: Stay home. Don’t travel. If you must gather, do it outdoors.”

As I was saying, I wanted to suggest safe ways to have holiday gatherings that include the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with chronic health conditions — people who are at higher risk from Covid-19. And I still do have three suggestions. They are just going to be a little different than I originally planned. They aren’t so much checklists or “how tos” as they are general guiding principles, and a few nudges towards practical, sensible accommodation.

1. Put things in perspective

First, be honest and clear-headed about the stakes. Consider:

  • The consequences of getting Covid-19 for all of your family and friends.
  • The elderly, disabled, or chronically ill people you care about, for whom Covid-19 can easily be a death sentence.
  • Your community, which will suffer both personally and economically if, despite all of your precautions, your holiday gathering contributes to local outbreaks.

Then ask yourself and your family, whether spending one year’s holidays with just your own household, or even alone, is really that terrible. Is skipping one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, one Hanukkah season, or one New Year celebration that much to ask?

After all, people willingly forgo cherished family celebrations like these all the time. They decide to take the kids to Disney World instead of spending holidays with the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Some decide every few years to take a break from the big, expensive, and often stressful family blowout, to hold a more intimate, one-household celebration instead.

And lots of people almost never have a huge, “traditional” holiday celebration for a dozen other reasons, no matter what’s going on in any given year. While solitary, “lonely” holidays are often quite sad, they aren’t always a tragedy. And they are endurable. Lots of people spend the holidays on their own every year, and they get on with their lives. Some even know how to enjoy it.

Finally, don’t be afraid to confront the political and ideological dimensions of all this. The last thing anyone should feel obligated to do is accommodate any relative or friend who refuses to take precautions or change their plans because they believe Covid-19 is a hoax, or not that big of a deal. We are all used to tolerating family and friends who disagree with our politics or values during the holidays. We gripe about it. We joke about it. And we put up with it. It’s part of the deal of being in an extended family.

But this is different. If people in your close circle of family and friends try to guilt you into participating in “normal” holiday activities, and take it as some kind of political insult or betrayal if you don’t, that’s on them. Just this once, don’t hesitate to do what you feel is best for yourself and your community. You can’t control what other people decide, but you don’t have to participate with them.

2. Set clear boundaries

Be careful and conservative in your approach to this year’s holidays. Take the safest available path that’s consistent with your needs and the needs of the people you care about.

None of us should hesitate for a split second to make clear what we are and aren’t willing to do. If wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and having no more than 8 or 10 people at dinner, for no more than a couple of hours is our condition, we should say so and stick to it.

If we feel we need to stay at home, no matter what anyone else is doing, we should make that decision and stick to it. If we feel the need to rule out hosting the usual big events that everyone looks forward to, we should say so now, kindly but firmly. Those who truly care about us will respect our decisions and not give us a hard time about it, no matter what their plans are or what they believe is necessary or an overreaction.

At the same time, if people you love who are elderly or disabled live in congregate care — in nursing homes, group homes, or assisted living — be firm with those institutions, too. Don’t try to undermine their efforts and obligations to protect residents. But be proactive about insisting on ways you can stay connected. Make sure that your loved ones are able to enjoy your communications and gifts and treats as freely as possible. And offer meaningful help to make the holidays as safe and connected as possible for everyone involved.

Above all, take the energy you might be tempted to expend on pushing back against restrictions and shouting about the unfairness of it all, and put it instead into doing everything you can to make everyone’s holidays as fun and safe as possible. Reroute pointless, destructive anger and frustration over a temporary hardship into the best in classic holiday creativity.

3. Be flexible and creative

It’s fashionable these days to complain about technology isolating us. But it’s never been easier to connect socially without being in the same room than it is today. Yes, some of us have grown understandably tired lately of Zoom, FaceTime, and other internet video conferences. And the technology to run them is still far from universal. But it’s also relatively easy to get the right equipment into the hands of people who choose to isolate or need to, if they don’t have it already.

“Virtual holidays” are a realistic option that nobody should overlook or disparage out of hand. The phrase, “better than nothing” most certainly applies, and for many of us, talking with loved ones on a smartphone, tablet, or computer is actually quite fun and fulfilling.

In a notably useful gesture, the online group video chat application Zoom will be waiving the time limit usually applied to its free use during the Thanksgiving holiday. That means you can install Zoom for free and use it for as long as you want for free, from 12 AM Eastern on Thanksgiving to 6 AM Eastern Friday. Get your family and friends equipped and logged in, and you can all catch up, show off the new babies, watch the parades and football games together, and — if you really want to or can’t stop yourself — even argue about politics just like any other Thanksgiving.

If some in your clan aren’t set up for video chats yet, do an inventory of devices and expertise. Any extra smartphones, tablets, or laptops in your circle can be loaned to loved ones who don’t have them. Set them up in advance and drop them off or mail them with instructions. And make sure to look into the accessibility features of these devices and video chat applications so your visually impaired, hard of hearing, and physically disabled loved ones can join in as fully as possible.

If this all seems like a lot of work, think again about all the time and effort you spend each year on regular, in-person holiday events. The time — and money — you usually spend anyway can be easily redirected into arranging and coordinating a video chat with multiple participants. And that’s not all.

Pay attention also to the little things you can do to make isolated people’s holidays more enjoyable and connected. For instance:

  • Send cards, real or electronic, to you family and friends — especially if you’ever never done it before, or if it’s been many years since you made a habit of it.
  • Buy gifts online for wrapped delivery. You probably do this anyway, but now the convenience is even more noticeable.
  • Send holiday foods, flowers, and decorations. These online services are not at all hard to find. In fact, the only downside is that once you use them, you may never stop hearing from them.
  • Make and share holiday music and movie playlists. Check whichever music services you use to see how this can be done. Or, make an old fashioned mix CD.

Finally, if these alternative holiday ideas feel too much like “giving in” to restrictions you resent — if you’re sick and tired of isolating and relying on technology for keeping in touch with the people you care about — take a tip from the disabled and chronically ill people in your life. Deal. With. It.

It’s easy to forget that disabled and chronically ill people’s lives are in many ways defined by compromise and sacrifice. Sure, some of us are vocal self-advocates and social activists for our right to participate fully in community life. We are often not at all shy about pushing back against discrimination and unfair restrictions. But the stubborn resistance you see from us is only part of the story. Most of us are also eminently practical. And that includes adjusting to circumstances beyond our control, and making the best of less-than-ideal situations.

This is one lesson everyone can rightfully and usefully learn from the disabled community. It’s a lesson we are all overdue to learn right now.

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