Ask Team Practical: Honoring Loved Ones With Disabilities

We're kicking it to you, APW team

I’m in the first stages of this wedding planning thing, and one of the first things we’ve started to talk about is the bridal party. My fiancé and I both volunteer with people with disabilities (specifically, we’re YoungLife Capernaum leaders, if anyone knows what that is). Some of our best friends are adults with learning disabilities. In fact, one of my FH’s groomsman has an intellectual disability, and one of our readers will be a great gal who happens to have spina bifida.

That said, my fiancé really wants to honor two of his friends by having them involved in our wedding. Initially they were on his list of potential groomsmen, but the fact of the matter is there is no way to articulate to them all of the expectations related to that role and know that they will do their best to comply (especially if they’re bored, or distracted, or being grumps the day of the wedding). As much as we love these two friends, we don’t want them reenacting Batman Begins at the altar when we’re saying our vows. They are not very verbal, so reading is out, and being an usher is perhaps more difficult than being a groomsman. Most of the “non-traditional” roles either seem childish or require language skills.

I’ve heard of ways to honor stepfamilies, and deceased parents, and children. How do we include two adults with severe learning disabilities in our big day?


Dear Anonymous,

Like you said, this is an important topic and we’ve touched on similar questions before. Over here in particular, we talked about different ideas to incorporate all of your loved ones with special roles. Starting with the ideas from that post that might work, let’s hash out the possibilities and then hand it over to the ever-brilliant Team Practical commenters to brainstorm.

Walking down the aisle at a specific time while special music plays can be enough to point out these folks as important to the wedding (even if they just take a seat after they walk). They can even carry stuff while they walk. Sure, like you mentioned, we all have this concept of little kids carrying the ring or basket of flowers, but there can be other important ceremony components (like candles or holy books) that can be carried to the space without feeling juvenile or silly. Another idea is to skip incorporating them into the ceremony, and instead honor them by pointing them out—either by listing them in your ceremony program, or mentioning them in a special toast at the reception. In the same theme, loved ones who dress to match the bridal party or wear flower corsages or boutonnières will stand out as special and important, even if they’re not active in the ceremony.

But, my absolute favorite way to include friends of all kinds into a wedding is to think about their talents. Instead of starting with, “Where can we fit these guys?” start with, “What do they do best?” and see where that takes you. Is somebody a really excellent artist? Have them design the program cover or paint a backdrop for the ceremony. Someone else is super at greeting and smiling? They’re now the official program-hander-outer. This angle takes a lot of thought, but may help you come up with more out of the box ideas that better fit your loved ones and your wedding.


Team Practical, I know someone out there has got a great answer for this. How do you involve loved ones with disabilities in your wedding day?

Photo by APW sponsor Gabriel Harber.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com or use the submission form here.  If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though we prefer if you make up a totally ridiculous sign-off like conflicted and rageful but deeply in love in Detroit (CARBDILID, duh). However, don’t let thinking up a sign-off stress you out; we’ll love you regardless. You’re already writing in for advice, don’t you have enough to deal with, sweetie?

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  • Amy

    My fiance’s sister is super excited to be our bridesmaid next year. She’s 28 and has cerebral palsy and mild learning disabilities from being born very prematurely. I don’t really have any expectations of her, except to walk down the aisle with the other girls. I want to make it a really special day for her too, and am getting a pro to do her hair & make-up so she feels special. I’ve decided on different but complementing dresses for all the girls, in part so that she doesn’t stand out as looking very obviously ‘different’ from the other girls if they were all in matching dresses, and have found a beautiful dress that looks really flattering on her.

  • What a great topic!

  • amigacara

    My husband’s brother is severely autistic and non-verbal. We got him a suit and tie that matched the groomsmen but had him just walk in together with my parents-in-law at the beginning of the ceremony. I think we also listed him on the program. That said, it’s probably a little easier to find a role for immediate family than for friends.

  • The best advice given is, “What are their gifts?” It’s a very authentic way to find a way to honor your friends.

    This won’t apply to the questioner, but maybe for some other folks reading this… My last living grandpa, post-stroke, was wheelchair bound and in a nursing home for almost two years. And while my sister really wanted him at her wedding, she understood the realities of the situation: he would not be able to wheel himself around, would not be able to use the restroom on his own, etc., and it unfair for her to ask my dad or aunt to do that for him. It was just a depressing reality for her. But then! One of the CNAs at the nursing home saw my sister’s invite and had a conversation with my aunt about helping Grandpa around the ceremony and reception. And, dammit, he was there with her help. It really made everyone in the family’s day, seeing him there, especially because it was actually the last time a lot of family members saw him before he died.

    Anyway, I guess the point of that story is, never be afraid to ask about options for caretakers to help out. I guess we just assumed that the situation was too complicated or whatever and that was that.

    • Newtie

      Agree to this! At our wedding we had a trained nurse to help with our disabled loved one. Just don’t forget to feed anyone who is at the wedding as a helper!!! And give them a space in the seating chart next to the person they’ll be helping, if you’re having a seating chart.

    • amigacara

      Yeah, my in-laws did that for my brother-in-law, too–they hired his regular PCA (personal care attendant) to come and be there all day at the wedding so that he would be comfortable and so that other family members would be free to help out with other wedding stuff.

    • Frugal Pineapple Cat

      I am the sister Blind Irish Pirate mentioned in her comment. I wanted to follow up with some of what she said.

      Despite some negativity from family and myself about the possibility of Grandpa coming to our wedding, my fiance and I always planned our ceremony and reception as if he would be attending. That meant walking away from a location we loved due to stairs and an entrance off the beaten path. That meant asking very direct questions about wheelchair accessibility, amplification, and logistics of mobility and transfer. Thankfully, each of our vendors took our questions in stride and offered suggestions and adaptations as necessary. As our wedding grew nearer, the bit BIP discussed with the CNA came into action and Grandpa attending was a reality. The wedding came and went with Grandpa seated front and center, smiling ear to ear.

      For us, Grandpa’s involvement consisted of attending, being seated with family and in a place where he could both see and hear what was happening. Not such a challenge, I realize. However, there’s more, and sure it’s minor but I distinctly remember my dad mentioning subtly, but purposefully, that Grandpa might choke on his meal, as he often did or his Depends might leak, or he may be too tired to come, etc. And if any of those things happened it was important to not be embarrassed or disappointed. I assured him I realized those things and I wouldn’t mind.

      At the reception Grandpa did start coughing while eating. It was loud, some people noticed. I didn’t mind. I knew he was safe and having the time of his life.

      And that is what I want the questioner to take away from this. Even if your two friends do reenact Batman Begins during your ceremony, it’s okay. If their lack of social appropriateness was a deal-breaker of a trait, you wouldn’t value their friendship. It’s quite possible someone wouldn’t understand or may be mortified because your “special day” wasn’t quite perfect. You take care of you and love the anomalies of your wedding.

      Don’t lose sight of the importance and value of community while hashing out the specifics. For Grandpa, sitting front and center brought him involvement and pride that many wouldn’t notice. Your friends are likely to find the same satisfaction in being recognized as important friends in your community of love, however you choose to involve them.

      • Cleo

        Beautifully said.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for dealing with this topic. Most of us have members of our inner circle who don’t fit into the cookie cutter picture that most wedding magazines and websites tout.

  • Tuppet

    My brother has some minor issues which would not have stopped him participating in the ceremony, but made some of the possible tasks like readings impractical. He was thrilled to be my mother’s escort for the ceremony (dad was busy walking me down the aisle), and he saw his primary duty as “handkerchief holder”. I bought a very fancy handkerchief for him for the purpose and he got to wear some flowers because he walked mum down the aisle, so he still had a special role. Turns out he was the only one crying on the day so good thing he was prepared! The only person who had any issue with this was my mother-in-law, who demanded – in front of him – that I offer him a reading to be ‘fair’ since my sister in law was doing one. He declined and then felt terrible for ‘mucking up the wedding’ (even though he absolutely hadn’t and I didn’t expect him to do one in the first place). Fair doesn’t always mean equal.

    I read somewhere that a hint for photographers is to photograph anyone with a flower, because they are obviously ‘important’. To me, this made perfect sense and meant the decision on flowers was easy: if someone was important they got a flower. They didn’t have to be standing at the altar with me to get one – my grandparents each had one for example, and they were in the third row. It was a good way to acknowledge them on the day without requiring anything from them.

    Preparing for the wedding is a big job. Why not include these people in that part of your day even if you don’t necessarily have a task for them in the ceremony (after all, the ceremony is only a small proportion of the day so there can be lots of space before and after the ceremony for including all the extra people who can’t be in the bridal party for any reason). My cousin had her hair and makeup done at the salon with the bridal party so she got to be part of the festivities even though she wasn’t a bridesmaid, and it made her feel grown up and fancy so she was very happy (she is 15). My aunt also got ready with us, and she loved it because she got to spend the day with us and be part of the whole process. Plus, bouquet battles and movie re-enactments can only help break the stress in the morning, rather than adding to it during the ceremony (we have some great photographs of this!).

    • Outside Bride

      I like the idea that the flower cues the photographer. I’m guessing it would cue all the other guests as well, if only in a subtle way. Is there anything else that all of your groomsmen will have in common that day – perhaps a tie color or fun shoes? As the two men in the original question were considered as groomsmen, it seems that identifying them as part of your bridal brigade visually might be a nice way to balance your wish to honor them with your desire to allow them to be themselves. What a great post.

  • Kara

    For my wedding we had an interpreter signing everything. My middle little brother is hard of hearing and his terp Cathy is fabulous. She sat in front of the section where my family sat and interpreted. We had invited some other deaf/hard of hearing friends and thought it only fair to have an interpreter there. Our photographers caught Cathy on film at several moments through out our day and she added to the beauty of it all. Her service wasn’t just for kicks, she provided another layer of beauty and it was perfect.

  • Amy March

    Think about opportunities to honor them throughout the process too. Could they join you on cake tasting and be honored by having their pick used? Attend the rehersal dinner with everyone else in the bridal party? Favorite songs of theirs the DJ can play and you can make a point of dancing with them during?

    • One More Poster

      “we all have this concept of little kids carrying the ring or basket of flowers, but there can be other important ceremony components (like candles or holy books) that can be carried to the space without feeling juvenile or silly.”

      This is great, even for someone without a disability.

      I was initially asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend; when she later determined that her bridal party was to be smaller than anticipated, she apologized and asked me to process in with the family Bible instead. I felt just as much a part of the wedding—and I didn’t have to buy a matching dress!

      • Lindsey d.

        In Catholic mass, it’s a actually quite an honor to carry something during the processional or recessional, or carry the gifts in before the Eucharist.

  • never.the.same

    There could be a place for them to be honored at the reception, as well. Ceremonies can be pretty formal and reserved, but the reception can be much more flexible. Are there any traditions in your Young Life Capernaum group that you can incorporate? Like a song or prayer or activity that you can incorporate into the reception, either during toasts or dancing, that your friends can lead (or lead along with you)? That way you could acknowledge both your friends and the important role your volunteer group plays in your relationship/life.

  • K.

    This is why I love APW. We’re having a hell of a time finding an indoor reception venue that’s wheelchair accessible and it’s easy to feel like there are no wedding resources out there that care about anything like that. It’s so refreshing that there’s a site that talks about actively honoring those with disabilities rather than saying, “Well, if you MUST invite your grandmother, maybe someone can, like, carry her up the stairs or something? Ugh. You’re the bride, don’t worry about such hassles.” It warms my heart and makes me feel like I’m not so alone or crazy for trying to be inclusive!

    • so much this! One of our big non-negotiables was wheelchair accessibility and while there were many venues that were, there were a few that were not easily accessible via wheelchair that we had to remove from our list of options right away. We wanted to be inclusive of as much family as possible so it was important to us that our venue be accessible for anyone with mobility issues.

      • Sarah NCtoPA

        Our venue was wheelchair accessible but weren’t overly familiar with it so didn’t know the exact route to get to the bathroom and where the ramp was kept. Make sure someone in your group (likely not the parents, etc) are in charge of this.

    • Ellen

      Keep looking! My mother uses a wheelchair and both my sister and I were able to find multiple, beautiful venues that were accessible. That being said, never trust anyone who says their facility is accessible. Go look at it yourself. On more than one occasion we’ve been told “it’s accessible” when what was meant was “we have a couple stairs but once we had someone in a wheelchair come and we just lifted them, in their chair, up the stairs.” That’s not accesibliity, won’t work for someone in a (very heavy) electric chair, and doesn’t provide much dignity for the person who needs a wheelchair.

      • Liz

        Highlight and underscore to this comment, completely. I worked in a restaurant where we were instructed to tell people the place was accessible. But, “accessible” actually meant wheel yourself to the back of the building, past the dumpsters, into the basement, and roll through the kitchen where people are scurrying to cook your food.

        Probably put a damper on several special nights out.

        • Oh, wow. That’s awful. It’s certainly good advice to see for yourself how a venue defines accessibility.

    • Totally agree. Both sets of our grandparents have a difficult time walking now, and one of the main criteria we had for a venue was finding a location that was one story and very accessible for people who cannot move far. I didn’t want to have to worry about my awesome grandma scaling steps or getting “stuck” because she’s scared . . . not happening.

      I see our wedding as much for my beloved family as it is for me. I’m the oldest grandchild, and this is going to be one heck of a party! I want everyone to have a great time. They won’t have a great time if they’re worried about simply getting around in a space.

    • Lindsey d.

      Agree! I checked every venue for accessibility. We have one guest who uses a wheelchair and, as generally happens at a wedding, several elderly relatives. I compromised on my ceremony venue, which doesn’t have the most equal accessibility (the accessible entrance is in the back, for instance), because the site meant so much to us. But I wouldn’t compromise on the reception venue. It’s totally up to par.

      I also checked the bathrooms, to be sure they were clean and didn’t smell, for everyone’s comfort…

    • AG

      Accessibility was one of the things I needed in a venue too. We ended up going with a museum – public spaces like that are usually required to be accessible. Good luck!

  • Jessica

    My aunt has Down’s Syndrome and is high-functioning but occasionally a “loose cannon,” especially when she’s overwhelmed by large crowds or notices that the attention *isn’t* all on her and she would like it to be! :) She was 5 years old when my mom got married and was her flower girl (despite giving herself a “unique” haircut the morning of the wedding). For another aunt’s wedding, she gave a toast at the rehearsal dinner. This worked well because she took her job very seriously, but it was OK in that situation if she went a little long or something, it was a smaller group of people there who knew what they were getting into. :)
    One of her first questions when I got engaged was how she was going to be involved in the wedding! :) I think I will give her a more public role at the rehearsal dinner and a flower the day-of.

  • Newtie

    There are also ways to “age up” roles that might originally be for children. We honored our disabled loved one by having him hold our rings. He was much too old to be a “ring bearer,” and going down the aisle wasn’t appropriate for him. But he sat in the front row, and at the right moment the minister asked him for the rings. He was very, very proud to have such an honor, but it was a role that required no speaking and didn’t really require him to “perform” or do anything special at any particular moment.

    Holding special objects for short, specific periods of time can be a great way to make someone feel very important without actually requiring them to do very much. :)

    • Love that. So awesome.

  • Julia

    My brother is severely autistic, so we had him walk my mom down the aisle. He did a great job and was happy as a clam. I think it helped that he doesn’t really understand fairness, and so he never feels slighted. I made sure to play a few of his favorite songs at the reception, and he put us all to shame on the dance floor!

  • My 13 year old nephew is on the Autism spectrum and has some other behavioral challenges. I asked my sister if he’d be ok with handing out programs, as I really wanted him involved. She said he’d be thrilled, and he was! I bought him a purple bowtie to match everything else, and he was amazed that he got to keep it at the end of the day. It’s sometimes the little things that make a big difference.

  • moe


    My mom is wheel-chair bound due to old age. My sister is also disabled and in a motorized wheelchair. Accesibility is the number one issue and concern for all family gatherings!!

    I have so many issues related to living with disabilites. My sister did not come to my wedding. (Long story) But from the onset of planning we had to consider accomodating my mom, my husbands grandmother who is also in a wheelchair, his adult cousin with Down syndrome, and other grandmother in a walker. Our venue (a friend’s house) had a side entrance to the backyard with no-steps, a larger bathroom set aside for these guests, and fortunately everyone was comfortable.

    It occured to me on my wedding day how uncomfortable my mom is in a wheelchair. When we gatherd for family portraits my brother wheeled her into place and immiedately she piped up “No! I want to stand!” It took a few moments and some hand-holding but she managed to rise from her chair for a few minutes and then everyone scrambled into place around her.

    My sister is the same way. She doesn’t like her chair to appear in photos and tries to disguise it any way she can.

    I know everyone is different, so perhaps be aware that for some people there is a sensitivity to being the center of attention with a wheelchair/walker etc.

    When it came time to dance however, my mom got down. In her chair, on the dancefloor, without a care in the world. :)

    • I can’t speak for your family, as a lifetime chair-user, its not attention that bothers me. In fact, I want to be the center of attention, so when I “disguise my chair” for photos, or try to get out of my chair as much as possible, its more as a reminder to others that I am more than my chair. Its my best tool for mobility, but I want others (especially in formal settings like weddings) to calm the eff down about my use of one.

      Unfortunately, our society- as a whole- underestimates those of us with noticeable disability. All I can do to change that attitude is be different from their expectations.

      I suspect your mom may have felt like me when she jumped up from her chair. Maybe she just wanted to be Mom for a minute, instead of wheelchair-bound mother of the bride.

  • But what if you want to ENSURE that someone is reenacting Batman Begins at the altar when you’re saying your vows? That’s gotta be somebody’s wheelhouse.

    I admire how you and your partner are valuing your friendships over convenience.

  • 39bride

    Something to be sure to consider when including those whose disabilities are on the Autism Spectrum or who have behavioral/cognitive challenges is the setting. For example, for my husband’s high-functioning autistic brother, we made sure to seat him on the edge of the room and near an exit for both the ceremony and reception. That way, if he became overwhelmed by the new experience or all the people he didn’t know, he’d have a quick and unobtrusive way to step out for a breather.

  • Another Meg

    These are all pretty excellent ideas. I really love the idea of having someone walk someone else down the aisle or carry an object. I’ve also seen people having special roles during the reception, like helping with the dessert table. My sister’s wedding is coming up, and one of her bridesmaids has Down’s Syndrome. She attended the shower with her mom and is really excited to wear a fancy dress and walk down the aisle with us on the big day.

    I think this is another instance of expressing your values on your wedding day. If these people are important to you, that won’t change because you’re getting married, and it’s great that you’re thinking of ways to honor them that won’t overwhelm them or ask too much.

    This is a fantastic post, by the way!

  • Frugal Pineapple Cat

    I just saw this:

    about 1/2 way down there is a picture of a man wearing a “Ring Security” tshirt and black sunglasses. It’s informal, but fun. It may be a way to give a grown man or pair of grown men a job that is typically for children. I love that it is an important job with straight forward instructions.

  • Improvised Bride

    Thank you so much for this post! My mom primarily uses a wheelchair as a result of a stroke. She can walk short distances with a cane (and an assistant always within arms’ reach). I am trying to figure out a way to have her walk with me for at least part of the way down the aisle at our November ceremony. I’ve thought about having my brother walk with us on her other side (dad-me-mom-brother), which could be a lovely way to have my entire immediate family enter together. I really want to have both my dad and my mom “walk” me in, and I don’t much care if she stands or rolls. It’s having her there with me that matters. But she would like to walk, if she can, and I think everyone in the place will be crying joyful tears with me as she does it.

    I second (and triple) the need to double-check the venue even when it claims to be accessible or is a public facility. My mom and I once nearly got trapped inside a bathroom at a museum. The main entry door had a wheelchair icon on it, but all that meant was that they had screwed some grab bars into the last (regular-sized) stall. It meant nothing about the L-shaped entry between the two sets of entry doors (which opened into one another, naturally), or the fact that there simply wasn’t room to negotiate two people, much less a wheelchair, into ANY of the stalls. Or that none of the sinks were at wheelchair height. Thank goodness my mom can manage the transfer (and let me help her) and stand for a few minutes, and that it was a slow day at the museum and there wasn’t a line. Still, I gave the information desk a piece of my mind on the way out and realized later that it was likely staffed by volunteer docents who weren’t the right audience anyway. That kind of stuff makes me so mad.

  • Amber Smith

    Thanks for this post! My older sister is mentally disabled and she’s going to be one of my bridesmaids. I know that she can get awkward and uncomfortable with photos, so when I asked her to be my bridesmaid, I warned her “you’re going to have a lot of photos taken of you!” and she said “I don’t care” which was a big “I love you!” to me. It really made her feel honored and she’s been talking about being a bridesmaid ever since. I know that this may make it a little more difficult, specifically for the procession and the photographer, but when it comes down to it, I don’t care: she’s my sister, and it’s important to both of us that she’s an important part of my wedding.