When planning your wedding, the most important part is finding ceremony and reception venues that fit your style and budget — and for wheelchair users, accessibility is another box to tick off. Trending venue options include getting married outdoors on farms or beaches, in warehouses or barns, or at poolsides. And as young wheelers make their way on their big day, some are opting for traditional wheels, while others use innovations that can include elevating chairs or standing frames, or in one couple’s case, a harness for jumping out of a helicopter.
All of the couples we spoke to planned exactly what they wanted for their wedding, from do-it-yourself country chic for $5,000, to no-holds-barred rustic elegance costing upwards of $50,000, to winning a chance to have their entire dream wedding donated. Here, they offer tips and ideas that can help you plan your special day.
Wish Upon a Wow
Tammy and Cameron Stay, both 39 with T5-6 injuries — Tammy incomplete, Cameron, complete — met at an Abilities Expo in Southern California in 2009. She was in a fashion show and invited Cameron to come watch her. In her wheelchair she looked like a bride in a white outfit with flowers in her hair.
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“When I saw her, I knew I wanted to marry her,” Cameron says.
They started dating October 2010 and became engaged April 2011. They were in California for another Abilities Expo. “It was at sunset and we were on the Hermosa Beach Pier. I got down on my knees and proposed and was able to get back up in my chair,” says Cameron.
“We knew we were going to get engaged,” says Tammy, “and I bought a joke ring, a $10 costume jewelry ring. Next thing I knew he was proposing with it. It turned my finger green!” They were married one year later at Canyon Gate Country Club in Las Vegas, where they live.
While planning her wedding, Tammy was reading through a bridal magazine when an ad for Wish Upon A Wedding caught her attention. WUAW is a nonprofit that grants weddings for those “facing serious illness or life-altering circumstances.” Tammy filled out an application and the couple was chosen to receive their wedding wish.
“WUAW invited us to a bridal fair and took us around to meet potential vendors that would donate their services, materials and time to our wedding,” Cameron says. The couple was allowed 50 people, including the wedding party, and everything down to Tammy’s blinged-out shoes was donated.
“We were going to do something small and affordable,” Tammy says. “This was so much more than we ever expected. We were overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity.”
“The photographer who chose us even presented us with a CD of 700 photos and a hardcover book of our wedding,” Cameron adds.
For bridal attire, one concern of Tammy’s was shoes. “I wear Mary Jane-style Skechers a lot, because shoes tend to fall off my feet,” she says. “One vendor bought a pair and added Swarovski crystals!”
For their ceremony, Cameron had his best man push him to the altar where he waited for his bride. Tammy’s nephew pushed her down the aisle so she could hold her father’s hand. “After our vows, we had our maid of honor and best man push us down the aisle so we could hold hands,” Tammy says. “We also improvised our first dance and had Cameron’s best friend pick me up and put me on Cameron’s lap.”
Tammy offers these tips for accessibility:
• Hold wedding and reception in the same location, eliminating vehicle transfers, especially for the bride.
• Designate seating on the end rows for wheelers’ visibility.
• Make sure you have enough accessible parking spaces.
• Have table service instead of buffet.
“Because Las Vegas is a ‘new’ city, the accessibility issues are minor,” says Cameron, a fourth-generation Las Vegan. “It’s pretty flat and most places are up to code. A lot of the hotels have Hoyer lifts and trained staff to help. Some security guards are even paramedics.”
How to Make a Viral Video
Indiana couple Joey and Michelle Johnson, both 28, met at a Miranda Lambert concert in June 2012 after he’d just returned from fighting in Afghanistan. They started dating in July. Then on August 12, Joey — who habitually rode his motorcycle for an adrenaline rush to relieve the stress of PTSD — crashed and sustained a T6 complete SCI. “He was in the hospital for 100 days,” Michelle says. “So we were able to really get to know each other. It brought us closer, I think, than a ‘normal’ dating relationship.
“The idea of breaking up came up,” she adds. “I don’t think there is anybody who wouldn’t think of that. But, at this point, we were in survival mode and our thoughts were about getting to the next step.” By April 2013, Joey proposed and they planned a June 2014 church ceremony.
Michelle, a wedding and event planner, was eyeing everything for wheelchair accommodation. “We looked at several venues,” she says. “But they all had hills or steps where Joey would have had to go all the way around the building to the back to get inside. We chose Milltop Conference Center in Noblesville, a renovated flour mill that’s fully accessible and features a man cave with a huge accessible bathroom.”
While searching venues, Michelle didn’t realize that Joey was focused on ceiling structures. When he saw Milltop’s huge exposed beams, he knew the plan he was keeping from his bride-to-be could materialize. Only Joey, his parents and two groomsmen knew his secret: The most important thing for him was to dance standing with his bride. At others’ weddings, they wheelchair-danced with Michelle on his lap, but on this day, he wanted to wrap his arms around her waist, hold her close and gaze into her eyes.
A once avid rock climber, Joey figured he could rig something up to those solid beams to hold him upright to dance. For weeks, he and his friends tried different harnesses in his garage. “We started with a rock climbing harness,” Joey says. “You basically sit in the harness and with no use of my abs, I couldn’t keep myself upright without holding onto the ropes.”
Scratch that. Next they tried a deer stand tree harness, but its elastic cord stretched too far and would not keep Joey upright.
Scratch that one, too.
“Then we thought about a harness we used in the Army,” Joey says. “It’s called Special Purpose Insertion/Extraction and worn when rappelling out of helicopters. It’s a full-body harness designed to hold a trooper wearing a heavy rucksack. It’d be perfect but we didn’t have time to try it out.
“We were just going to wing it at the reception, but my mom came in and said, ‘No, you will do a practice run,’” Joey laughs. “We practiced right before the ceremony while Michelle was getting ready and after my lawyer friend and Army buddy wrote up a liability waiver for the venue
The 6-foot, 2-inch, 165-pound groom bought his own tuxedo, had the pants lengthened, the jacket shortened in the back and the pant pockets sewn shut so his hands wouldn’t catch while pushing his wheelchair.
While Michelle was distracted, Joey and his buddies installed the harness and hooked him in while guests looked on.
“When I came around the corner, I was in shock,” Michelle says. “Everything in the room stopped, and I only saw him. I walked up to him and started crying. It had been two years since we were eye to eye.”
A friend taped their first dance to the Glee television show version of “A Thousand Years.” ABC News picked up the video, aired it the following Veterans’ Day and a viral video was born.
Stand and Deliver
Kiley and Zach Nelson, both 24, had already booked the Milltop Center for their wedding ceremony and reception when a photo from Joey and Michelle’s wedding popped up on Instagram.
“I saw this groom in a wheelchair,” Kiley says. “I wanted to see if they made any modifications for their wedding, so I connected with Michelle on Facebook.” The four met for drinks and became friends. Joey explained his harness, but Zach, a T3-4 complete para, knew he couldn’t manage it.
Zach and Kiley met in high school and started dating just before Zach left for boot camp after graduation. In 2012, while on a convoy mission in Afghanistan, the vehicle Zach was riding in while strapped in on top as a gunner, hit a boulder. The vehicle rolled over on him.
“I was in my junior year of nursing school when he was injured,” Kiley says. “You knew there was a chance he wouldn’t come back, but it never even occurred to me that he could come back with a life-altering injury.”
While planning their November 2014 wedding, Zach, determined to stand next to Kiley, decided to use a manual standing chair. “Using the stander was our saving grace,” Kiley says. “Getting a tux that fits was a challenge, too — the jacket bunches up and the pants ride up. Plus, I wanted to showcase my dress, and we felt that we were very limited for photos when he was sitting in his everyday chair.”
Zach used his standing chair for vows, “first look” photos and the first dance. For bridal party photos, he was lifted onto a barstool and then used his wheelchair throughout the reception.
“I’m a very tall girl, and it was great to have him stand up with me during the ceremony,” Kiley explains.
“After my injury, I wasn’t expecting her to stick around, but we decided to give it a go,” Zach says. “That’s when we knew we could make things work, it’d just be a different way of life. It’s turned out pretty well so far!”
For the Love of Family
Maria and Fel Ian Rabaino met one night at a bar in 2011. Maria was a stressed-out college student who’d had her heart broken so many times that when she met Fel Ian, he made no impression on her. Four months later, Maria, underaged, went out drinking with a co-worker and some of his friends.
“I didn’t know them too well,” she says. “They were all over 21 and I figured they knew their limits.” They didn’t, and on the way home, the driver crashed and was killed. Maria sustained an L1 incomplete injury.
“After my accident I realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing,” says the 22 year old. “So I decided to do what made me happy, and it all fell into place. One random night, I ran into Fel Ian again. He was fun and didn’t talk about my chair, just to me as a person.”
“My mom is in the medical field, and I’ve seen so many people in wheelchairs, it’s second nature for me to not see the chair,” says Fel Ian, 28. Within four months of dating, the two got engaged, then married July 2015.
The Rabainos (now living in Monterey, Calif.) rented their local Sacramento community center, saying their vows outside on the patio with a view of a pretty field. Inside, Maria decorated the gymnasium for the reception. There were no issues with accessibility for Maria and her 200 guests, including five wheeler girlfriends, whom she met dancing with the Walk and Roll dance team.
“After my injury, my dad found Chelsie Hill’s dad on Facebook and sent him a message about me,” Maria says. “They talked on the phone and her dad gave my number to Chelsie, who was set to be on the TV show, Push Girls.”
The girls became close friends, Chelsie encouraged Maria to join the dance team, and Chelsie became a bridesmaid for Maria.
Maria chose a fitted gown that the bridal shop altered so the train hooked up to avoid her chair wheels. They also hemmed up the dress more than usual as Maria had decided she would walk down the aisle wearing her leg braces and walker.
Maria mostly stood while trying on her dress, so she didn’t pay attention to the bodice corset. After sitting for hours at the wedding, the corset wires began to dig into her hips and became painful. She warns sitting brides to have the corset cut higher to prevent this from happening.
“I chose to walk down the aisle because I had a lot of friends and family who knew me before and wanted to see me walk,” she says. “I then used my chair after our vows, to show them what my life is going to be with Fel Ian, and that we are 100 percent OK with it.”
“I’ve been with her through a lot of physical therapy,” says Fel Ian. “So seeing her walk down the aisle was breathtaking.”
“I’m happy in love and that’s all that matters,” Maria says.