Tips for Hosting a Spooookily Inclusive Halloween Bash
By Whitney Stohr
The countdown to Halloween has officially begun!
While the neighborhood kids are occupied dreaming up Halloween costumes, staff at local rec centers, elementary schools, churches and city parks departments are putting the final touches on their plans for Halloween parties, get-togethers and carnivals.
Event planning can be both exciting and stressful. Usually, it is a mix of both, and yet, it is essential, when planning community events, to consider what is necessary for that event to be made as inclusive as possible for individuals from all backgrounds, including those with disabilities.
This blog post is for you.
You, the event planner. You, the school PTA president. You, the church youth director. And you, the city parks employee.
This blog includes helpful tips to make your Halloween event more inclusive for children with disabilities and complex medical needs.
Tip #1: Plan your event well ahead to allow time for reflection, feedback and modification
Let's begin with a critical aspect of event planning -- that is, to plan ahead. Plan your event well in advance. When you have a solid outline of the event, seek out feedback, and seek it out from diverse voices. Ask families what they need to feel welcomed and included at events. Ask them how they would engage with other families and within the larger crowd if they were to attend your event as planned. Ask what barriers might exist that would limit their attendance or their full participation. Remain open to this feedback and avoid defensive responses. Be willing to pivot as necessary. Remember: The goal of this process is to create an event that can serve a broader and more diverse range of children and families.
Tip #2: Tailor your marketing strategy to reach a broad audience
Before you begin sharing your event flyers and posting about your upcoming bash on social media, reserve time to develop an outreach strategy with inclusion as an end-goal. Consider how you will share your event across media channels. For example, do you know if your organization's website, where members of the public will register to attend your event, is digitally accessible for users with disabilities? Can those who use screen-readers access the information? Is "alt text" used to describe images and media content? Are text captions included on videos? While website accessibility may be a longer-term process, it is important to recognize any barriers that might prevent specific groups within the community from learning about, and registering to attend, your event. (For more information about barriers to digital accessibility and potential solutions, visit tinyurl.com/fwu6eu3z.)
It is also important to consider possible opportunities to reach out and engage diverse groups within the community. How will these groups learn about your event? Do you have contacts who can share this information? If you wish to share information about an inclusive Halloween party with the families of children with disabilities, you could reach out to a local Special Education PTA group in your school district. You might connect with community organizations, such as The Arc (find your local chapter here!), that work with individuals with developmental disabilities. You might also connect directly with local schools, preschools and Early Intervention [birth-to-three] providers.
Tip #3: Keep accessibility in mind when planning your event
It is important to plan your event with the physical accessibility of the facility and event activities in mind as both children with physical disabilities, as well as Disabled parents and caregivers, will require adequate access in order to fully participate in your event.
Begin with a mental audit of the facility. Starting in the parking lot: Will the number of ADA parking stalls accommodate the anticipated needs of your guests? Is there an unimpeded access route from the parking lot to an entry point? ("Unimpeded" means that there are no steps. Even a single step-up to a doorway can render a facility inaccessible to wheelchair users.) Once inside the building, would someone with a physical disability have access to each program or activity at the event? Could a young wheelchair user participate fully in each activity? If live entertainment is scheduled, do you have quality seating reserved for people with disabilities? If there is a cafeteria area, do you have accessible tables available? What do the restrooms look like? Could they adequately accommodate the needs of a wheelchair user? (Find more helpful tips at tinyurl.com/v4r8kvv2.)
Such questions are necessary to better understand and plan for the needs of all guests. Often, resolving access issues is simply a matter of thinking ahead. For example, could a small, portable ramp be used at a front entry point to provide access? However, where facilities present significant accessibility issues, it may be necessary to rethink your use of that facility.
Tip #4: Prep your give-away treats
Hosting an inclusive Halloween event requires a stock-pile of non-food treats. Food allergies, such as those to nuts and dairy, are common in our communities and can prove incredibly dangerous. (Do you know about the Teal Pumpkin Project?) In addition, some children with disabilities or other medical conditions maintain highly-specialized diets and/or are unable to eat by mouth. To maintain an allergy-safe and inclusive environment, it is wise to keep non-food treats on hand (and separate from edible treats) for children who cannot accept candy or snacks.
Examples of non-food treat alternatives include:
Playdoh or slime
Whistles or noisemakers
For additional non-food treat options, visit the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) website at tinyurl.com/r8j5jx4t.
Tip #5: Fully Embrace the Spirit of the Holiday
Lastly, while the often whimsical and, sometimes, outright hilarious nature of Halloween reminds us, this holiday is meant to be fun. It's important that we keep it fun! And that means being intentional about inclusion. If you are hosting an event with vendors or volunteers, remind them that an inclusive Halloween is not a time to hold a treat "hostage," for instance, until a child completes a requested performance of "trick-or-treat." A costume should not be viewed as a "ticket" to receiving the prize of a treat. Some children with disabilities do not communicate through spoken language. Some children are not comfortable wearing costumes; some are sensitive to certain fabrics and textures. Some kids are simply shy, or have anxiety, or come from a background of trauma. Whatever situation presents itself, the important point to remember is to meet your guests where they are, without pressure or expectation, and revel in the good-natured, child-focused intent of the celebration.
Whitney Stohr is a Parent to Parent Coordinator at The Arc of Snohomish County. She is passionate about advocating for medically complex children and children with disabilities, and their families. She is a mom and medical caregiver herself, who is energized by working closely with other parent/family caregivers. She lives with her three-year-old son Malachi and husband Jason in Lynnwood, WA. (Article originally published in October 2021.)