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My big fat inclusive wedding

by Emma Tracey

20th April 2011

You might think staging a huge publicly important wedding in the centre of London has its challenges but what about the logistics of creating an occasion that heavily features wheelchair users, guide dogs, sign language interpreters or one where the mental wellbeing of the bride and groom needs careful thought?

With the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton fast approaching, four brides look back at their big day, and those little accessibility touches which helped to make it so special.
Tanni Grey-Thompson on her wedding day.

Something In The Way She Moves

Top wheelchair athlete Tanni Grey had only one surname, and was yet to be honoured with her baroness title, when she married fellow Paralympian Ian Thompson in 1999. Like Kate Middleton though, she did have a wedding dress specially made.

“I went to many bridal shops in search of a dress but none of them fitted right for me sitting in a chair. On my way to work one day, I spotted a shop which advertised that they made wedding dresses. I explained to the lady exactly what I wanted. It had to flow while sitting down and not get in the way when I moved. The dress she made might have looked a bit odd on the hanger thanks to the five panels sticking out from it ... but it did fit over the wheels of my chair perfectly.”

The chair itself had a crucial part to play on the day, as it was to carry the bride up the aisle.

“My wheelchair is an integral part of who I am, so it was very important to me to get a new one for the wedding. I had a minimalist designer chair made specially in purple, my favourite colour. It really looked right and I used it a lot afterwards too.”
Bethan with her guide dog and new husband.
Blind bride Bethan Collins also chose to glamorise her particular mobility aid for the big day.

“My guide dog Nicky went up the isle with me. Instead of wearing her usual plain collar, I covered one with the same fabric as the bridesmaid's dress and put a bow on her too.

"I walked in front with my dad, and the Bridesmaid and Nicky came behind. She was part of my life so it would have been strange not to bring her. Would you believe that, in the past, brides have been a bit funny about me taking my dog to their weddings. I think they were worried she might upstage them.”
Bethan and her husband with their tandem on their wedding day.
Before getting married, Bethan and her now husband Michael had already bought a tandem together as they are keen cyclists. Tandems are very popular in the blind community; Michael can see and so acts as the front rider. And thus, their bicycle made for two was the obvious mode of transport for them to leave the church on after the ceremony.

“We had our tandem custom built. It is part of our relationship. We’ve gone on holidays with it and had some of our best arguments on it so it had to feature.

"It happened to be the right colour, so all we had to do was fashion a gutter out of plastic to sit the back of my wedding dress in. Our little jaunt on the bike gave us some really special time together before the reception.”

It's All In The Preparation

Organising your perfect day is made harder when communication is a barrier. Emma Burton and her husband Toby are both deaf. Emma remembers finding preparations for their wedding a significant challenge.

“We got married in Northern Ireland. We found the marriage industry there to be a real phone call culture, which was extremely difficult for us, especially when trying to make contact with suppliers. I had to mostly rely on my friend or my mum to phone for me, as my emails never got a reply.”
Emma and Toby on their wedding day.
At their wedding ceremony, however, it was these very communication differences which gave the occasion that special something.

“We both used British Sign Language throughout the service via interpreters. A lot of my parents’ friends found this extremely moving because they’d never seen deaf people communicate. To be part of a deaf wedding was a whole new experience for them.”

As well as the exchanging of vows being made accessible, the venue needs a great deal of consideration if you're inviting guests with mobility difficulties, as Tanni was:

“I found it amazingly hard to book a reception. There were so many people in wheelchairs at the wedding that even though one of the venues had a stairlift outside to get people in, it would have taken all day.

"In the end we went for a modern hotel, and We made sure that the people who needed accessible rooms, had them.”
Liz and her husband Michael exchange their vows.
Liz Main and her husband met through the Ouch! website. Michael has severe anxiety issues and they both live with bipolar disorder. In an attempt to make their wedding as stress-free as possible, they opted for a small and very personal ceremony.

“My dad is a minister. He married us on a balcony looking out over the sea. My siblings, their kids, Michael's sister, her partner and his parents, were the only ones there."

The First Dance

The other big reason why Liz and her husband opted for a more intimate setting, was the fear of having to perform the first dance in front of all the invited guests. This is a recurring theme with our disabled couples.

Emma and Toby got lessons from Strictly Come Dancing’s Karen Hardy but forgot them on the day through their nervousness. Having no desire to stand out, Bethan made a pact with the bridesmaids and groomsmen to join her and Michael on the floor as soon as the music started.

The now double barrelled Tanni Grey-Thompson also had no intentions of sticking to the dancefloor tradition.

“I only dance when I’m drunk, and my husband walks with crutches. He doesn’t stand very well and I didn't want him to end up in my lap. I chose to have the first dance with my brides maids.”

Happy Ever After

Liz Main and her husband Michael
Liz says that, even though her wedding was a small one, and organised with a lot of help, she was still worried about how it might affect her.

"Not everyone with a mental health problem is manic before their wedding; being a Bridezilla was not a clinical condition last time I checked, but it can be a risk factor.

"Weddings are expensive, even small ones, so I was constantly asking myself: Am I spending because I need to or because I'm manic.”

Getting married is universally accepted to be both the happiest day of a bride’s life and one of the most stressful things you’ll ever do. Many people may have an anticlimactic 'come down' but what happens if, like Liz, you can't afford any kind of downer?

“I completely crashed when we got back home after our fab wedding and honeymoon. It didn’t help of course that we’d exchanged on a house a couple of days before we left, so came back to a place that needed a load of work done. While I had every reason to be ecstatic I was seriously thinking about accidentally on purpose falling backwards down the stairs from a ladder while decorating the landing.“

She didn’t, however, and four years later, Liz and Michael are happily married and living in Belfast.
Are you planning a wedding or do you have a story to share about your special day? Tell us in the comments below.


    • 1. At 9:50pm on 25 Apr 2011, batsgirl wrote:

      Why yes, I am planning a wedding for next month. I say planning. It's mostly planned, and now we're into the final stretch of panic.

      It was a bit upsetting to see how many venues and suppliers had to be removed from the list because of access issues. For instance, there was not a single accessible wedding dress shop in the town where I live, and the shock in the voices of the shop assistants as I phoned around ("What, you're the *bride*?!?") was really starting to grate. Part of me feels like I should have been pursuing it when I encountered barriers and discrimination like that, but nearly-husband and I decided it would be better *not* to increase the wedding planning stress by adding a side-order of legal battles.

      On the bright side, some people and organisations have been really really accommodating. The registrars cheerfully assured me that conducting the ceremony without all the stand-up-sit-down business wasn't a problem; a leather repairs firm have made me a pair of white wheelchair-grippy gloves that will still show off the ring. In fact all the suppliers we've brought on board have had great attitudes and it's been a really enjoyable experience.

      Although I am looking forward to it being over.

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