According to the CDC, 26% of Americans have some kind of disability. That includes children and youth with disabilities, young and middle aged disabled people, and a good many elderly people with age-related disabilities.
So chances are pretty good that a majority of Americans, both with and without disabilities themselves, also have at least one other disabled person in their lives. It could be a son or daughter, a spouse or close friend, a brother or sister, or parents, aunts, and uncles, neighbor, coworker, or fellow student.
The holiday season is already well underway, but it’s not too late to be extra thoughtful and intentional about what to give the disabled people we care about. Of course, disabled people want fun, enjoyable gifts that match their unique tastes, just like anyone else. Having a disability doesn’t automatically change a person’s ordinary wishes and interests. But for disabled people in particular, useful gifts can, if chosen creatively, give more than a passing moment of pleasure.
Here are three kinds of gifts you can give to show your love and care for a disabled person in your life — gifts that can bring not just joy to their lives, but also peace of mind, independence, and a little extra bit of plenty.
1. Adaptive tools
Products designed for people with disabilities used to be highly specialized, expensive, and hard to find. Some still are. But advances in consumer electronics and a growing embrace of Universal Design in everyday products are making genuinely liberating adaptive tools much easier to find, and to give as gifts. For example:
MORE FOR YOU
Smart devices … like smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers provide highly adaptable access to information, communication, self-expression, socializing, literature, music, movies, and TV. Alongside these basic platforms, there are also more specialized reading apps like Kindle and Audible that anyone can use, but can be extra helpful to people with disabilities that make reading conventional books more difficult. And most computer and mobile device operating systems now include high-quality accessibility features at no additional charge, making them more accessible to people with a variety of physical and sensory impairments.
Kitchen tools … like openers for tight bottles and jars, easy to hold utensils, and more convenient countertop cookers can help make some of the simplest, most essential, but daunting everyday tasks more accessible to people with disabilities. For instance, Oxo Good Grips is a notable line of kitchen utensils that are specifically designed to be easier to use, especially for people with hand and strength impairments. Not being able to open bottles and jars may seem like a small problem, but it can be a major barrier for people with disabilities, especially when they live alone. And some narrow-use appliances may seem wasteful because they only do one thing, but K-Cup coffee makers, rice cookers, and other highly specialized kitchen devices can make certain frequently prepared foods a lot easier to handle.
Smart home products … like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are marketed as cool ways to trick out a home, or as extra conveniences for busy homeowners. But being able to turn lights on and off, control heating and cooling, and operate entertainment systems with a voice or smart device can double a disabled person’s everyday independence at home. Home automation is still expensive and somewhat tricky to organize. But starter kits can be a perfect collaborative holiday gift from friends or relatives, especially if they are also willing and able to help the disabled recipient with effective setup and programming.
Home accessibility … like grab bars, handle openers to replace door knobs, and small ramps is another type of non-traditional but potentially transformative gift for people with disabilities. Most of what you need for the more straightforward projects is available at big box home renovation stores. And technical guides to safe accessibility design are available online.
These sorts of adaptive accessibility gifts offer safety, connection, enrichment, and when done right, real, practical and ongoing independence for disabled people.
2. Time and labor
Sometimes what a disabled person needs more than any particular thing is someone to help them do things. Cost, availability, and an often deep reluctance to ask, can make it incredibly difficult for a disabled person to get live, competent on-site help. Above all, what disabled people need is help from a responsive person — one who is willing to take direction, and agrees to be at the disabled person’s disposal for a set period of time or full duration of a task.
It may seem like a cop-out in terms of traditional holiday gift-giving. But offering your time and physical labor can be a truly precious gift to a disabled person you care about. Offer them your undivided attention and unconditional service for a fixed period of time, like a day or a weekend, or to complete a specific project of their choosing. For example, you can offer to help move furniture or redecorate, help with a favorite hobby or fun activity, provide transportation and assistance with errands and special shopping trips, or simply run some errands for them.
The gift here isn’t just the work itself, it’s the freedom to be able to do things that would ordinarily be easy for the person if not for their disability. And if offered and done tactfully — with both love, respect, and enthusiasm — this kind of labor can fit perfectly between paid but impersonal hiring and the kind of “favors” that can make a disabled person feel anxious and beholden.
The poverty rate for people with disabilities was just over 25% in 2019, compared with only 11% for the population at large. And the situation for disabled people probably hasn’t improved during the Covid-19 pandemic. Giving a financially struggling disabled person cash for necessities may not feel right as a holiday gift. And in any case if done too much it can actually jeopardize their eligibility for benefits. As an alternative, you can look for simple ways to help pay for a few of the finer things in life.
Meal kit delivery services … like HelloFresh and Blue Apron are nutritionally better than the typical frozen dinners, and physically easier to shop for and prepare than meals from scratch.
Luxury food subscriptions … like jellies and jams, candies and snacks, coffees and teas, or fruits and cheeses aren’t necessities, but rather small luxuries that can make anyone’s everyday diet more enjoyable.
Home delivery services … like Instacart and DoorDash almost completely eliminate the physical and logistical strain of shopping that can be massively daunting to people with disabilities. They are also lifelines for disabled and chronically ill people who are at higher risk from Covid-19. These services generally have monthly or annual membership fees that make deliveries more affordable.
Streaming services … like Netflix, Hulu, HBOMax, AmazonPrime and many more provide high-quality entertainment, often for less than most cable subscription packages. Most are monthly subscriptions, while some also offer annual membership options.
Newspaper and magazine subscriptions … either in hard copy or online provide vital connections to local, national, and international news, and reading from a wide variety of sources on whatever topics the gift recipient enjoys most.
These kinds of gifts offer a combination of luxury and necessity, making more or less essential things easier to obtain and just a bit nicer than a disabled person might otherwise be able to afford on a regular basis.
Finally, don’t overlook two curated disability-themed holiday gift guides — one by disabled writer Emily Ladau, emphasizing products made and sold by disabled people, and another from disabled blogger Meriah Nichols, a guide to gifts for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Whatever you decide to give a disabled person for the holidays, it’s important to keep one thing in mind.
Make sure as much as possible that you aren’t giving a disabled person what you think they should have, but what they actually need and want. Your gifts should make a disabled person feel good, happy, independent, and more in control of their lives — not indebted or dependent on the giver, or pressured into a course of action they don’t want because it’s been “gifted” to them.
You can always give disabled family or friends ordinary gifts you would give anyone. But if you want to be creative and responsive to some of their disability-specific needs and aspirations, these are just a few of many ways to give much more than trinkets and stocking-stuffers.