by Kara Ayers
Maybe it’s my age (43), where I grew up (Kentucky), or the fact that I was a disabled kid, but I don’t remember playdates being “a thing” as a child. When I had friends over, it was almost always at my house because it was accessible for my wheelchair. By the time this happened though, our parents usually knew each other fairly well.
For my daughters, though, it’s been different. The original idea usually comes out at some random time while brushing teeth, driving, or the ever-popular going to bed. It starts like this, “Mom, my friend Ava wants me to come over and play.” I review that we can’t show up to houses unannounced so I’d need to talk to their grown-up. Eventually, this leads to me writing my name and number on a random slip of paper, and surprisingly often, a stranger texting me to identify themselves as Ava’s mom.
Here’s where it can get tricky.
This person has usually never seen me. They don’t know my husband and I are in wheelchairs. Their child might not either. Even if they have seen me volunteering at school or elsewhere, it’s usually last on their list of priorities with the prospect of playing with their pal.
If they suggest our kids play at their house (and we feel comfortable with that), I typically try to disclose my disability. I do this for a few reasons:
- I want to avoid the look of surprise when they see me.
- I want the focus to be on our kids when we meet.
- I almost always need them to know for purposes of coming and going from their house.
It’s relatively rare when I can access a house (from the driveway through the front door) so I assume I cannot. Given this, I need the parent to know I’ll text them when I arrive for drop off and again for pick up. Here’s an example of what I might say:
“Thank you so much for inviting X over. She’s really excited to come play. I wanted to let you know that I use a wheelchair. Most homes have a step to get inside. Does it work for you if I text you when I arrive so you can meet us in the driveway and walk X inside? I can do the same when I pick her up.”
While they might not have thought about it before, most people realize during this conversation that I won’t be able to get in their door. The solution is a relatively easy one and everyone knows what to expect.
Even if the play is planned at our house, I usually try to open this line of communication in advance. If my kids are invited to an event out in the community by a friend, I also usually need to ask about accessibility. There have been a few times I haven’t felt comfortable with a location because it was dangerous in some way or I wouldn’t be able to get to my child if they needed me. When this happens, we politely decline but explain we’d love to meet up another time.
If it seems like I’ve got it all figured out, I don’t. I want my children to enjoy time with friends. I sometimes dread the anxiety that accompanies these interactions. I wish I could make the awkwardness disappear but the kids, mine and their friends, are worth the discomfort. I want a more accessible and inclusive future. One in which I could show up knowing I could expect access. Until we get there, we can figure out workarounds together.
Kara Ayers, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati and the Associate Director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCCEDD).