As the holidays are approaching, I want to bring up a topic that is painful for many with special needs, especially the DeafBlind. This is one of inclusion in school, social, and family activities. Often, people with special needs can’t participate easily in activities with non-special needs people. The DeafBlind, in particular (especially if their losses are near total in both senses), are affected so much that they are often isolated and alone even in a crowded room. With the holidays approaching, these special needs feel that isolation even more because so many people lack understanding of their needs and literally forget about them with the “busy-ness” of the season and all of its obligations. What can be done about this isolation? Truthfully, it needs to be considered daily, but to begin during the holidays when the whole reason for the season is to be thankful for what we have and, more importantly, loving others, is a perfect time to start.
First, you have to recognize that there are people with special needs around you that will be a part of the activities around you, or should be a part, if you will only see that they exist or their needs exist. You recognize the needs are there and find ways to accommodate for those needs within the planning and scheduling of your holiday gatherings and events. If you don’t know what the needs are and/or how to accommodate, go to the people who love and work with these people every day and simply ask for help. They will be so happy to hear that you are considering their loved one that they will gladly work with you.
Second, once you have an idea, make preparations based on what you have learned. If the setting is a new one, try having a prior visit for that person and their caregivers or Support Service Providers (SSP), if possible. If not, provide information to the caregivers, so they have time to work with the person explaining what will happen and how they can enjoy the gathering or event. Make modifications to the gathering place as needed in advance to best care for the person and eliminate anxiety and fear. This will help everyone enjoy the event more. This could be as simple as providing a quieter corner, but still in view of the festivities, so the person won’t be too overwhelmed with stimulation. Take into consideration any medical or communication equipment that the person will have near them. Nothing will ruin an event more for the special needs person and the others invited than a medical device not having electricity or the cord getting kicked. Communication will cease if a device runs out of power and outlets or USB chargers can’t be used in the area. Preparation could also mean providing an ASL interpreter (tactile or visual) which takes weeks to set up, or some other person to provide voice over near to the Hard of Hearing person or into their FM equipment microphone or other needed provision if hearing and/or vision is one of the issues. Remember, too, that many have more than one special need that must be accommodated. A little prior preparation will help to ensure that the person is situated in the best place and that all needs are met.
Check on any food, lighting, or other requirements the person may have, too, and prepare for any modifications in that area, as well.
Finally, you nor even the caregiver/SSP can think of or know of every possible need in advance, especially in a new setting, but if you discuss what needs to happen if the special needs person becomes agitated or has a medical issue, you can minimize the issue for the person, as well as minimize the disruption to the event. Yes, in many cases, the special needs person will be concerned about any hindrances or disruptions they and their needs will cause too, so you will be helping the situation for that person by considering what needs to be done if there is a problem.
In addition, plan ways to involve the person in the activities. Plan one or two activities that all can enjoy, be it with music or games or reading special holiday stories. Let the person do what can be done alone or with help to participate in some way. It may be that an activity can only be participated in by letting them draw the names or numbers in a game. Let them sign or sing the words of a song they know. If full participation isn’t possible, allow them to do one simple thing throughout the activity that they can do like roll the dice for everyone or raise a hand to start and stop an action even if they need additional help from someone to do that task. Or even help hold the book or a set of props to visually enhance a holiday reading selection. It may seem overwhelming, but just think carefully and be creative. It only takes a little to mean a lot. Your efforts will be well worth it to all of you, but especially the person with special needs who probably is alone or lonely more than they like to admit.
A third aspect that many forget, or don’t realize is there, is the need to prepare your other guests. If they know the person will be present and have an idea of how to communicate and include the person in the event activities and just know how they can spend time with the person, you will minimize their anxiety which will, of course, minimize further anxiety for the special needs person. Remind them that the fastest way to isolate a person and hurt them is to pretend they aren’t there at all because you can’t calm your nerves to say hi or touch their hand. Simply, explain that the person does have issues, but there are simple ways to accommodate for those issues and help everyone enjoy the gathering. Keep the instructions clear, but simple. If there are communication devices and/or procedures, explain how these can be used and provide even more help as they interact with the special needs person. Assure them that all they have to do is show kindness to and interest in the person and that alone will bring joy to the person and also allow them to be filled with joy, as well. We all have something to give and be enjoyed if others only know how to receive it. You will be a blessing to each other, and this holiday season is perfect for sharing those blessings.
All I ask, beginning with this season of Thanksgiving and Love, is that you look around you for those who get left out too easily because they have needs that require everyone to make an effort to see and include. The isolation you bring to someone’s Dark Silence, whether it is real as for a DeafBlind person or just in the confines of depression and loneliness for another, you will brighten not only their day, but give them hope to face each day. It will also add joy, just from getting to know them, to your own life that will bring blessings beyond measure.