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For People with a Disability, Holidays Present New Challenges

Here are some tips for finding new ways to do the usual holiday activities.

By Alyson Roth
Former Shepherd Center Patient

The holidays bring about family gatherings, platters full of food, parties, shopping and gift exchanges. Often, the sound of children’s laughter is present everywhere. The season of thanks and worship has always been one of my favorite times of the year, but after I sustained a spinal cord injury in 2000 and was discharged from inpatient rehabilitation in October of that year, it was no longer what I had remembered.

Thanksgiving was my first life event to go through during my first year of paralysis. During a time of year where one is usually giving thanks, I was adamantly against it and not thankful at all. I was still in the first few months of processing a life with a disability, and the thought of being thankful for a motor vehicle accident that I did not cause was not something I was willing to accept.

Christmas came next, and because I had to use a wheelchair now, I could no longer reach the high branches of the Christmas tree as we decorated it, I could not get up and down to hand out presents, and juggling a plate of food on my lap while squishing a cup between my knees was rather awkward.

Over the years, however, I did learn to appreciate the holidays and all the nuances that come with it. Yes, it is difficult to go to the mall and have to trudge through the over-packed aisles and items that had fallen on the floor. Even now, when invited to a get-together, I still have to be concerned if it is accessible, and wrapping presents at Christmas time is quite comical as wrapping paper rolls far beyond my reach, tape overlaps itself and the overall wrapping isn’t quite perfect. But through these obstacles, I have found ways to overcome the stress and negativity that I once felt about this time of the year.

First, know ahead of time what events or get-togethers you will be attending and get as much information as you can about the place. Do not rely on others to do it for you because typically your comfort is not their first thought at such events. Try not to take it personally, but rather see it as a way of being proactive for your own life and being empowered to say whether or not you can attend based on accessibility. You never know after your own research if the venue could change or if people would be willing to help you with whatever you need. Times like this can be used as a teaching moment.

Second, shopping doesn’t always have to be done in a store with hundreds of other people, many who are seemingly in a hurry and not paying attention to you. Online shopping is a great alternative to trying to push your way through the crowds and fight for parking. (We all know that somehow more handicap placards appear in vehicles this time of the year than any other!) It can give you great ideas for those who are hard to shop for, shipping is often free and you can even opt for it to be gift-wrapped! Always check the return policy on purchases made online, but from my experience, I have never had a problem.

Third, try to do what you are able to do on your own. The sense of accomplishment is a present in itself! Participate in the lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah. Decorate the Christmas tree, even if you can’t quite reach the top. I remember when I was at a point in life where I had two options – either not have a tree or try to figure it out on my own. I chose to try to put up and decorate a tree on my own because I wanted to at least say “I tried” rather than letting my disability take over my passions. Yes, a lot of needles came off the tree, lights got twisted and a few ornaments fell off the tree, but my little “Charlie Brown” tree was exactly perfect. Why? Because I did it on my own!

Finally, find a way to keep yourself centered. For some, it’s exercise, and for others, it’s meditation. Even holding a small symbolic item or wearing a certain bracelet or necklace can be therapeutic. Personally, I have found that doing yoga is a good way to relieve stress (especially during the holidays), as well as journaling. It is helpful for me to get what’s in my head out onto paper – whether good or bad. Talk to friends, stay connected and most importantly, stay one with yourself.

Remember, the holiday season is only a few weeks of the year, and the promise of a new year is right around the corner!

ALYSON ROTH, who has a T-8 spinal cord injury, was a patient at Shepherd Center in 2000. She has worked as an educator and advocate for wheelchair users and enjoys playing violin in her local symphony. Alyson was also crowned Ms. Wheelchair California 2009. To read more about Alyson and connect with her online, visit her website at

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About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.