Formal Dances With A Disability

Formal Dances With A Disability
It’s that time of year again to plan for spring formals like the prom. Nervous? First of all, relax. As someone in a wheelchair who attended both her junior and senior proms, and many of the other seasonal formals in a wheelchair, I’ve become a little bit of a pro on how to finesse things like this. Just think a little bit in advance about your plans and you will have the time of your life with your friends, and probably make new ones.

Now, where is the time of your life about to be held? Is it taking place in the school gym, at a fancy hotel or some other hall where community functions are held? Find out where the dance will be held. If it’s away from campus, drop by and get the layout of the place. Find the accessible entrance and restrooms. Why not become part of the dance planning team? What a great thing to know you helped plan one of the best nights in your life yet.

If you don’t help with planning and find out the dance is planned somewhere not disability-friendly, don’t assume you can’t go. There’s always hope. Go to a teacher, your principal and the dance committee to make your concerns known. Were your concerns dropped on deaf ears? No worries! Contact your school board or a local disability advocacy group, such as a Center for Independent Living, to get their help in advocating for an equal opportunity formal dance.

I know. You don’t want to make a major ruckus about a silly dance, but it’s important as a person with a disability to make your needs and concerns known. You never know how many other students want to attend the dance, too, so you’re helping them as well. You can advocate with a handshake and polite conversation. Advocacy doesn’t have to be voices and fists raised in conflict. Make your school and community more aware. Nobody wants to attend segregated dances or be excluded entirely, right? Raise that awareness with polite confidence and pride.

How about your date? Do you have a date to the spring formal or prom? No worries, really! High school is a tough social jungle, particularly with a disability. You already stand out because of a disability, right? Don’t feel like you’ve got to bring the epitome of the ‘perfect’ escort to the dance. There’s no such thing as perfect anyway. Go with someone you know you’ll have a good time with. That’s perfection.

Worrying about being asked? Ask someone yourself. You don’t have to be in love or with your crush to enjoy the dance. Ladies, ask that special someone you’ve wanted to get to know all year or your best girlfriends. Guys, don’t feel pressured to go with an ex-girlfriend or a brand new girl you don’t know well just to fit in as a twosome. If you’ve asked someone and they say ‘no’, it’s really okay. It’s not always a rejection of you. Maybe they aren’t going or with someone else. How about the group of friends you enjoy class trips, lunch and weekends out with? How about people from your study groups who make you laugh between cram sessions? Go out on a limb and organize your own circle to go together or meet up with.

So, you know where the dance is, it’s barrier-free and you've got a date or party posse organized. What about your outfit? You really can look your best at a formal dance in a wheelchair, on leg braces, crutches or whatever disability you have. Accentuate your best features and glitz up your wheelchair, scooter, crutches or even the harness of your assistance animal to match your outfit or flowers.

Traditional attire for the prom and other seasonal formals are exactly that -- formal wear. Girls get to dress up in pretty gowns, get total formal makeovers and even have an excuse for a day of pampering from hair and makeup to nails. Guys will be decked out in tuxes and suits, dressed to the nines for the evening in their best cologne. Remember to try hairstyles, makeup and scents days in advance to make sure they work for you and you aren’t allergic to the products and perfumes.

For guys the formal wear purchase experience is pretty easy. All you need is to find a tuxedo or suit that fits your body and personal style. If you have a date, take into consideration the color of your tie. If you have date, which is not required, you will want to closely coordinate or match her dress. Or, if you find out a girl you want to see at the dance doesn’t have a date, surprise her with her favorite or coordinating dress color in your tie. That subtle hint could go over very well in impressing her. Unless you are a shopping nut and love to try on the latest looks, guys are usually in an out of the formal wear shop in less than an hour. Guys have it too easy!

Now guys, think about her flowers, her corsage and your boutonniere. Find out what she likes, her dress color, what she’s allergic to. Also consider a pinned on corsage over a wristlet if she’s on crutches and doesn’t want to bend the corsage while walking. Maybe she can pin the flower back in her hair or pin it on her handbag.

For girls, the whirlwind of decisions has begun. Browsing in stores or even ordering an outfit by catalog can take weeks or even months to complete. Still, you may be able to borrow a friend’s dress from a couple years ago or go to a vintage or secondhand store for great bargains. Yes, I said secondhand stores. Goodwill and Salvation Army have some great buys and just because someone loved the dress first doesn’t mean it’s not good enough for you. And it can be dry-cleaned, so don’t think you are getting a nasty dress. Some good, fashionable and easy-to-alter buys are in secondhand stores.

Make sure the sleeves and skirt won’t get caught up in the wheels or brakes. I have a manual chair and enjoy pushing myself, but who wants stains on their new sleeves? I also used crutches for a while before I went full-time to the wheelchair. Be careful that the dress isn’t so long you end up tripping. Make sure necklines don’t impair neck braces or the airflow to oxygen tubing either. You want others breathless in your beautiful presence, not you!

Go with friends to get an idea of what’s in style, what looks good on you and in case you need help getting zipped or snapped up. Don’t let the salesperson sway you from what you are looking for. Be clear about your personal taste and budget or you’ll go home with a lot more dress and the wrong one to boot. Also be clear when you get tired of trying things on. Everybody gets tired in the flurry of fabric, so take a break. I try on three, rest for about 15 minutes and then try on another three. As you try on ones that catch your eye, you may like this dress, but it’s the wrong color, or the wrong style but the right fabric. Make notes on a small pad.

Wear what looks good and feels good on you. I went to a recent formal gathering in a nice formal blouse that flowed over my waist and underneath wore matching, flowing pants that looked like a skirt. I fit right in among the formal gowns and got lots of compliments. With my wheelchair seatbelt over it, you couldn’t tell it was not only a two-piece set, but that I had on pants. If you have your outfit altered, save extra fabric to cover your seatbelt so it looks like part of your dress, or use the fabric as bows in your hair, on your wheelchair, walker or crutches.

Now, what about transportation? Don’t discount a limousine if it’s just you. It’s all part of making a grand entrance. See if the limo driver would mind escorting you in if you are alone. That way you are in safe and sound with a dapper driver in a suit. Consider splitting a limo between your friends if it’s expensive. Consider, too, accessible transportation companies if you can’t transfer in and out of a wheelchair well. Having a safe, accessible driver shows your responsibility toward a safe, more grown-up event. Ask if they’ll show up in a suit, or if you can put streamers or a magnetic sign on the van to make it more festive, too. Now that’s an entrance!

Regardless of the stress and adapted planning you need to enjoy a formal dance, it’s all worth it. Take lots of pictures with a disposable camera, too. You’ll want to look back on these times later for sure.

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This content was written by Monica J. Foster. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Christina Dietrich for details.