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Former Patients Share their Insights on Planning a Wedding that is Wheelchair Accessible

Even as a young girl, Lauren Camdzic had very specific ideas about what her wedding day would be like.

It would be a destination wedding, on a beach. Besides daydreaming about her future groom, the beach location was the most important part of Lauren’s early dreams. And she carried that romantic vision in her mind for years.

“I had envisioned getting married at the beach ever since I started thinking about weddings,” Lauren says. “I couldn’t imagine it happening anywhere else.”

But on a busy Friday afternoon in July 2011, Lauren was shot as she crossed a street in Midtown Atlanta, sustaining a T-10 spinal cord injury. The act of random violence changed her life in a way that could have shattered her oceanside wedding dream, were she not so strong and determined.

Lauren spent months at Shepherd Center learning to adjust to life with a spinal cord injury. It was during those months that the boyfriend she had been dating since high school asked her to marry him.

The answer, of course, was yes. Suddenly, Lauren found herself planning a wedding and thinking about that idyllic beach setting again. But this time she was thinking about how to make that dream come true amid new physical realities.

“The beach is probably the least accessible place for a person in a wheelchair, but I couldn’t imagine it happening anywhere else. I was pretty determined. Luckily, we were able to pull it off,” she says. “Compromises are inevitable, but do not give up your dreams.”

Lauren’s wedding involved a specially built ramp that led from the beach’s entry point down to where she and fiancé Anel exchanged vows, allowing her to comfortably navigate sandy terrain.

The message and moral of Lauren’s story is an important one. Many of Shepherd Center’s patients are faced with the challenge of planning a wedding that includes some kind of special accommodations for accessibility.

Finding a comfortable venue can be one of the most significant and obvious challenges.

Is all of the terrain at a facility accessible, or just small portions of it? Where will the reception be held? Are dining tables tall enough to allow wheelchairs to slide under them?

Scott Keithley and his new wife Jean Manki looked at numerous venues, including historical homes, gardens and restaurants. Though he has C-7 quadriplegia that imposes accessibility requirements, Scott did not get discouraged during the search, but instead learned a great deal.

“Many venues say they’re accessible on their websites or in their advertisements. But don’t take them at their word. It’s important to go see for yourself,” he says. “A lot of places figure if they don’t have a lot of stairs, then they are accessible, but they’re not thinking it all the way through.”

When it comes to historical properties, there are often architectural challenges, Scott says. Because such sites often seek to preserve their original look, guests in wheelchairs are less likely to be able to access the entire property.

Scott and his fiancée were also adamant about having tables that could comfortably be wheeled under, allowing guests to eat without having to balance a plate on their lap.

Scott paid special attention to the seating arrangements, ensuring there was plenty of space between tables to circulate around the room.

“You want to be able to get around and spend time with all of your guests,” he says.

Ultimately, Scott and Jean chose a restaurant in a mixed-use office complex that had both indoor and outdoor seating, and an extensive courtyard.

About 55 people attended. The entire affair lasted about five hours, with a DJ spinning tunes and music from Scott’s iPod. At one point, Scott’s new wife surprised him by singing “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele.

“My vision was to be able to put together all of her friends and all of my friends – people who did not know each other, but knew of each other – and to have a relaxed celebration of our love, with really great food. And I really felt we achieved that,” he says.

For Kelley Simoneaux, who has a T-12 spinal cord injury, it was important that the day not be centered around her wheelchair. Achieving that goal required several thoughtful adjustments.

“I didn’t want my husband to have to bend to give me our first kiss, those kinds of things,” she says.

During the ceremony, Kelley’s groom, Bradlee, sat in a chair across from his bride, able to look her in the eye and lean over easily to kiss her.

The couple also selected a very small wedding cake, so it would not tower over Kelley while the couple cut the first slice.

“For us, it was about: ‘How can we make subtle adaptations to the structure of the wedding so no one is really focused on my wheelchair?’ And we were able to accomplish that. I enjoyed the day and everyone else did, too,” Kelley says.

A fastidious planner, Liz Ouligian of Gainesville, Fla., had her wedding date and all its important details finalized. And then destiny intervened.

During a drive home from Jacksonville, Fla., she and her fiancé were involved in a car accident that left Liz with a T-12 incomplete spinal cord injury.

The wedding had to be set aside – at least temporarily.

“My first thought was I still wanted to keep my wedding date. I will be sitting down but still able to go to my wedding,” she says. “But about one month before my wedding date, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. I was so upset. I was so big on wedding planning and getting everything done. I had this date and all of the favors engraved with the date.”

Canceling that original date, however, has given Liz time to address some important new questions – such as how to shop for a wedding dress in a wheelchair and how to make the dress look its best when being worn in a sitting position.

There are experts at bridal shops who can help alter a dress, allowing it to look the way it should, Liz says. There are also changes that can be made to the wheelchair to protect the wedding gown.

Liz has not yet rescheduled her wedding date. She is working to clear one last hurdle before she will allow herself to finalize a date again.

Holding tight to her original wedding dreams, Liz wants to be able to walk down the aisle and to also share a first dance with her husband, as well as a dance with her father.

Making that happen has required her to work tirelessly to regain enough strength in her legs to walk with forearm crutches.

“Once I complete one walk down the aisle on my own, then I will set a new date,” she says. “I’m just waiting to get to that point.”

Written by Mia Taylor

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.