"Beaches are the worst." That's a conclusion recent bride Britt Murlas reached pretty quickly while beginning to plan her September 2017 wedding. Because she and fiancé Mickey Kay had spent some time living in Guatemala, they knew they wanted a tropical vibe for their vows. But there was one sticking point: It was next to impossible to get Kay's wheelchair through a soft, sandy surface.
That wasn't the only challenge Murlas knew the couple would have to push through. After dating Kay for some nine years before he proposed—they met when she was coaching a kids' wheelchair basketball team and he played on the adult team—"I was aware of general accessibility things," she says. And at first, after she Googled the words "wheelchair wedding," the bride-to-be was met with photo after photo of brides perched on their new husbands' laps and chairs decked out with "Just Married" banners—helpful advice was nowhere to be found. That meant the pair had to do much of the legwork on their own.
But that didn't stop Murlas and Kay from planning their dream wedding. Though they quickly decided to nix the idea of oceanside vows (they briefly toyed with the idea of laying down a mat or a plastic grid first), the future Mr. and Mrs. decided they could still throw a tropical celebration. They found just the look they wanted in a private home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. While Kay loved that it served as the setting for one of his favorite films, Jurassic World, the bigger draw was that they could have most of their friends and family stay on site. "We wanted to be near them as much as possible," says Murlas.
Another very important feature: A slab of cement that could serve as the dance floor. "We knew there was an option that wasn't grass," notes Murlas, "just in case it was very soft or muddy." While the accessible dance floor was a plus, the duo knew they'd still need to maneuver around the rest of the venue. So, on their first visit, they did a thorough walk-through. Explains Murlas, "Our biggest worry was that Mickey would have to deal with some accessibility issues on day-of."
To assuage that fear, Salt Lake City-based wedding planner Michelle Leo Cousins, owner of Michelle Leo Events, recommends jotting down a checklist of must-haves before visiting potential venues. To make sure your bases are covered, Leo says, "Be sure to check things off the list, like whether or not the venue has elevators, wheelchair access ramps, bathrooms that are easily accessible, and so forth." Should you be considering an outdoor affair—in Utah, she deals with rolling hills, various elevations, and mountainous terrain—do a complete trail run. "Venues like these may not provide the most navigable surface," she notes.
That was an issue Murlas and Kay kept in mind as they roamed their wedding site. "I think the big thing is actually walking where people will need to go," says Murlas. "If you don't have any mobility issues, you don't notice things like the number of steps between one place and another or that certain surfaces can get really slippery." One issue they flagged was that the venue's drive was particularly steep. Since they wouldn't be able to change the grade, they decided to give advanced notice to anyone who might be affected by the hill. That included their close pal who also uses a wheelchair. Letting guests know about any potential roadblocks, the bride says, is a way to let your loved ones know that you care about their needs. In the case of their friend, he relied on his partner to help him down the steep drop, but couples could also consider providing ushers or escorts or alternate entrances for guests who may need them.
Cousins recommends applying that same care to the reception space. If possible, place guests who use a wheelchair or walker on the perimeter "so they can enter the room and easily access their seat," she says. "Don't place a guest with mobility issues at a table that has to be accessed by navigating through several other tables." And make sure to tell venue staff to remove chairs from the table in advance "so they can feel at ease."
To ensure Kay felt relaxed on the big day, the couple thought through the various wedding traditions that may or may not work for them, the bride explains. Their first stumbling block: Figuring out how they would present themselves at the altar. "I didn't want Mickey to be looking up at me the whole time," she says, but she didn't love the idea of pulling up a chair to face him either. After several months of debating different plans, their photographer floated an idea she'd seen at several weddings. "She had said, 'Have you ever thought about sitting on a loveseat?'" recalls Murlas. "Couples in Spain apparently do this often because the ceremonies are so long. And that was that."
They went through a similar process when deciding on a first dance. Though she notes "wheelchair dancing is definitely a thing," the couple didn't think it was for them. "When we thought about it, it just gave us both a little bit of anxiety to be watched by our crowd of guests," she says, "so we decided not to do it. And I really don't think anybody noticed."
In the end, that was the key for the pair—simply finding workarounds to make the day feel like them. And should the person who uses a wheelchair be one of your guests, the best thing you can do is just keep them in mind. Even potential problems, if pointed out ahead of time, can have a solution, says Murlas. "It's just being thoughtful and letting people know if you see an issue," she explains. "There are ways to get through it if somebody knows what to expect."