12 Ways to Inclusive Festive Fun: How to Celebrate the Holidays with Your Child Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired – Part 2
Sunday December 5, 2021
The glorious visual spectacle of this Holiday Season can exclude and isolate a child with vision loss from retinoblastoma, but we can experience these traditions with all our senses. In part 2 of this festive blog, bilateral Rb Survivor, Abby White, shares six more ways to include blind and visually impaired children in Holiday traditions, creating delight for the whole family.
Diana (8), Joshua (4) and Esther (7) with Santa in 1999. They put on their outdoor clothes to show Santa, seeing that he too wore his outdoor clothes inside, and they chatted about the clothing worn in different climates.
Our world is aglow with seasonal joy as we celebrate religious and spiritual festivals, and unite as family, friends and community. We enrobe the darkness of this ageing year in splendid finery that warms the soul.
An array of ceremonies and traditions mark this time of year, with profound visual spectacle. For centuries, colour and light has been used in festivals around the winter solstice to dispel the gloom of these cold, short days. Without careful thought, the experience can be quickly isolating for a person with sight loss. But a little thought and planning can ensure everyone feels included, sharing the joy, magic, peace and hope of the season.
In part 1 of this blog, we explored Christmas trees and decorations, holiday gifts and sensory shopping, tactile advent calendars, and candle-lighting. Below are six more simple ways to ensure an inclusive celebration with common traditions of the season.
Many of these suggestions are drawn from my experience growing up with limited sight, in a family universally affected by sight loss – my father lost both eyes to retinoblastoma, while my mother and sister have significant visual impairment.
1. Santa’s Grotto
In 1999, I hosted a Ugandan family for Christmas. The three children, aged 4, 7 and 8, knew about Santa from movies, stories, and pictures. They believed he brought them small gifts on Christmas morning, but they had never met him. I revelled in sharing the real story of St Nicholas with the children, helping them write letters to Father Christmas, and secretly planning a visit to the city’s department store Santa.
The store was wonderful, advising the quietest time to come so Santa could give the children more time, offering a 50% discount and free gift-wrap for purchase of the items mentioned in the letters. Santa had read the children’s letters, and asked each about something they wrote of, making them feel so special and valued. He even sent them thank you letters for the visit a few days later, wishing them a safe flight home. The experience was delightful for all three children, and for me.
If you plan to visit Father Christmas before the big day, try for a quieter time, when Santa and his helpers may be able to give your child a little more time. Of course everyone wants more time with Santa, and you may wonder if there is ever a quieter time, but there are a few natural lulls, particularly around mealtimes.
The venue should be able to advise you of the best days and times. Some have special advanced booking programs for disabled children, with extended visits, so do ask what is available.
Before your visit, read a festive story, watch a film, or explore an ornament that creates opportunities to discuss what Santa looks like, sounds like, and the clothes he wears. Describe his ruddy red face and curly white beard, and the colours and textures of his suit, hat, boots, and belt – not forgetting the sparkling gold of his belt buckle and buttons.
If your child is unfamiliar with beards, explain that beards are hair growth on the chin and cheeks of men specifically. Let your child know they can ask Santa for permission to touch his beard, but pulling hair is not okay because it hurts the other person. It may help to talk about bearded people your child knows and trusts.
If your child is nervous, help them prepare a couple of things to say to Santa (including how much fun last year’s gifts have been), questions to ask Santa, or a gift to give him – an uncommon turn of events. Practice and preparation can calm their nerves, ease their experience, and create lasting happy memories.
Santa and his helpers want all children to know that their global operations are accessible. Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly acceptable for a blind or visually impaired child to touch a roaming Elf on the Shelf as they go about the house creating mischief and magic on Santa’s behalf before his visit. The magic certainly will not disappear on contact – and it may very well increase – a child’s delight mixed with elvish magic is a potent combination!
Like many inclusive organizations and celebrities these days, Father Christmas outsources braille transcription, and he has helpers around the world for this. Ask your regional or national service organization for the blind if they work with him to provide braille replies to children’s letters.
2. Tactile Stocking
When letters have been sent to Santa, or whispered conversations shared with him, stockings are carefully hung in preparation for his magical nighttime visit. When I was a baby, my grandmother knitted this lovely stocking for me with sequins and a bell. My name is knitted in large high contrast lettering around the top, easy to read and identify it as mine – my sister’s is almost identical. We would awake on Christmas morning to discover the enchanted weight of these filled stockings at the end of our beds, when the night before they had been hung by the fireplace downstairs.
A wide range of stockings are available to buy today, including tactile options with different textures and embellishments. You could also make a unique stocking for your child by adding tactile features, such as embroidery, buttons, pompoms, sequins, or bells. If you don’t have crafting skills, but a friend or relative does, consider asking them to create a unique tactile stocking for your child to enjoy as a Holiday gift.
Once you have your tactile stocking, have fun finding fun gifts to put inside. Our child life specialist, Morgan, loves this list of 30 multi-sensory stocking stuffers – it’s full of her favourite toys and manipulatives for children with visual impairments and sensory challenges.
Abby’s grandmother knitted this stocking for her when she was a baby.
3. Holiday Cooking
Cooking and baking is a big part of most celebrations around the world at this time of year – and a wonderful opportunity to teach life skills to all children, wrapped up in fun and excitement. Involve your child in planning, preparing, and serving the food.
When grocery shopping, consider paying for some items separately in cash so your child can practice making purchases. Encourage them to identify the notes and coins needed, and to count any change to ensure they have received the correct amount.
With simple demonstration and instruction, children can help with many food preparation tasks, such as:
- Locating ingredients and utensils.
- Counting out food items or utensils.
- Washing fruit and vegetables.
- Weighing ingredients with talking scales and measuring jug.
- Spreading fillings onto slices of bread with a spoon.
- Combining, mashing, stirring, or scooping ingredients.
- Rolling pastry and cutting into shapes.
- Lining a baking tray.
- Icing baked items.
- Counting and placing prepared items on a serving plate.
4. Sensory Play
Holiday baking illustrates how this season is a feast for the senses. Playfully engaging the senses helps babies and young children develop knowledge, understanding, and multiple life skills. From awareness of basic physical properties to complex concepts like cause and effect, imaginative play, social interaction, and sharing different perspectives.
These Holidays provide endless opportunity to stimulate the senses through playful exploration. Here are two basic suggestions.
Sensory Treasure Hunt
Take a walk with your child, and encourage them to search for items themed around the five senses. Keep this very simple with a list of open-ended items, such as looking for something that
- Is white
- Feels soft or hard
- Makes a noise
- Can be eaten
- Smells sweet
Help them to find items by drawing attention to points of interest with description as you walk, and help your child explore with their hands if needed.
Holiday Sensory Box
Ask the children to find items that represent each of the five senses. This could become a sensory treasure hunt during a family walk, or simply finding items from around your home and garden.
- Scent: a pine branch, scented candle, cinnamon stick, peppermint candy cane.
- Touch: pine cone, glittered bauble, velvet bow, sculpted seasons figure.
- Taste: gingerbread, peppermint cream, tangerine, berries.
- Sound: bells, tambourine, wind chime.
- Sight: coloured bauble, light-up ornament, glow-in-the-dark stars, tea light.
Take turns to tell one another why each item was chosen, or make up a story that includes an item representing each sense. This can be a fun, creative calm-down activity at the end of the day.
For more sensory play ideas, explore these ten accessible holiday activity and gift guides for children who are blind. From cooking and crafts, to reading and more, many of these activities families can easily do at home.
5 Reading Stories
Do you remember first experiencing the magic of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, either as the illustrated book or the exquisitely animated film? A book and film entirely without words – how would you experience this beautiful story as a person with limited or no sight?
I was delighted to receive an audio version of the story, created for blind and visually impaired children. Bernard Cribbens’ narration is set to Howard Blake’s gorgeous film score, enabling children to connect the story beats to the music. One could then either conjure the story in the imagination in flow with the music, or turn off the TV sound, and start the cassette as the film began (being ready to quickly turn the tape at the end of the music box dance scene – this was the early 80s).
For your family’s delight, here is a rare combined version of animated film and audio narration.
Viewing and reading stories together is a festive tradition for many families. But as The Snowman illustrates, children’s story books rely heavily on pictures to convey information. Blind and visually impaired children don’t gain much from text alone, and when there is none, they are completely excluded without an alternative format.
Ensure your child has a fun, positive, inclusive experience by choosing books with braille or tactile elements they can explore with their hands. Another option is to create a tactile story box, featuring items that are mentioned in the text and appear in the pictures. For example, a story box for The Night Before Christmas might include a model house, a toy mouse, a sock, a dollhouse bed, hard sugar candy, etc.
As you read the story, your child can find the items corresponding to the text. This can bring the story to life through fun comprehension, object recognition, and matching activities. One or two items per page of text is best, and multisensory items will create most delight.
Here is an opportunity too for parents and caregivers to immerse yourselves in the story as you simply describe the images to your child while reading. Help them use their imagination by pausing to talk about each picture, and give them the abundant visual information provided on each page. Follow these ten top tips for describing images to blind and low vision children while reading picture books together.
6. Special Events
When young, my sister and I always had appointments at Moorfields in December. My strongest memories of those days involve touring the Christmas lights of Regent Street and Oxford Street with our parents, skipping along while describing what I could see, feeling the appreciative squeeze of my father’s hand in mine as he listened and enthusiastically asked guiding questions – what colour, how many glowing trees do you see?
More recently, my dear friend Ffion and I established a tradition of visiting the beautiful illuminations, Christmas market and fairy-tale adventure at Blenheim Palace. The state rooms are transformed into a magical storybook trail, each room a different scene of wondrous imaginative detail. This hugely visual experience always brilliantly described by my wonderfully observant friend Ann.
The holiday season is alive with spectacle – from neighbourhood light displays to extravagant organized illuminations, winter carnivals and parades, theatricals like pantomime and variety shows, and wonderful wonderland adventures. While all these events are highly visual, they can be hugely enjoyable to someone with limited or no sight with a little forward planning and good focus during the visit.
Check whether arrangements are available for people with sight loss. Some venues offer discounted tickets, while others offer a free carer’s ticket. In some cases, where no organized discount is advertised, I have been able to secure this by speaking with the manager, politely and respectfully highlighting that I am attending a visual event with friends, but I cannot see it myself.
Touch Tours and Audio Description
If the event is a performance of some kind (theatre, parade etc.), check BEFORE booking your tickets whether there will be a planned touch tour and / or audio described performance. Touch tours enable blind and visually impaired patrons and their family to explore the sets, costumes and props before the performance, so the show makes more sense and feels more alive. When the touch tour is offered in combination with audio description, the audio describer may draw specific attention to elements they know the audience is already familiar with through the tour.
Audio description is delivered via a headset given to the patron on arrival at the venue. Audio description often begins a few minutes before the actual performance, with a verbal description of the opening set and costumes. Unlike cinema, theatrical performances are audio described live to accommodate variations in timing of the live production, ad-lib and improvisation. This is a highly skilled and costly service, usually provided through charity funding. When it is available, it is usually offered only once or twice in a production run. So enquire and book as early as possible.
You can bring the event to life well with your own description. Follow the basic principle of simply describing what you see. Your description will help stimulate wonderful blind imagination, and in the process, you may well notice more detail than you thought possible. Here are five simple tips for describing exhibits to people with sight loss.
- Orient the exhibit using clear directions – describing from left to right, or clockwise, matching item positions to the numbers on a clock-face are helpful techniques with which many blind people are familiar.
- Describe the layout of the venue, including a brief description of any obstacles and their location, to aid navigation (e.g. we’re in a large ballroom. A banqueting table with high back chairs is set up in the centre, which we will walk around, and Christmas trees standing maybe 10ft tall are spaced out along the walls.
- Introduce the overall set piece (e.g. “the room is set up for a royal banquet”, then add detail about decoration and features.
- Layer in detail: What textures are used? If the display features people or animals, what are they doing? If there are many different types of one object, like clocks, mirrors, or wrapped gifts, how do they differ? What is the overall feeling or emotion the display conjures?
- Describe colour of both the display and its lighting (many blind people have memory of colour, and highlighting colours can help people with low vision locate elements as you describe them. If features of the venue itself are visible, describe these, even if they don’t relate specifically to the exhibit. I love Ann’s description of Blenheim’s wall tapestries, paintings, china and crystal collections.
Ask stewards if you can touch display items that are roped off. They may not agree, or may not have authority to give access, but it is worth asking, and explaining why touch is important. A little friendly exchange goes a long way.
In 2019, “Alice at the Palace” featured a delightful set of the white rabbit’s house. As Ann described the white rabbit, relaxing in his armchair, Ffion wondered aloud why he was roped off, while other displays were not roped, and whether she could touch him. The steward attending that section of the trail overheard and initially said access would not be possible. Ffion jovially noted that she was able to touch the delicate charred cross of World War II-bombed Coventry Cathedral to understand it, so why not this rabbit? The steward immediately agreed, and allowed Ann to guide Ffion to the rabbit.
Orientation and Mobility
Allow more time than is recommended to tour the exhibit. Verbal description takes longer than simply looking, and a rushed tour is never enjoyable without sight. You may also find you begin to notice much more in the displays as you slow down and take time to describe them.
If your trail is outside, be prepared for a longer, slower walk by dressing in suitable warm clothes and bringing hot refreshments (or enjoying hot snacks on offer at the event). Even though you are walking slower for longer, you may be surprised to find you notice the cold less as you focus more acutely on the surroundings in the process of describing them.
Navigating in the dark can be hard for people with low vision – lights may become blindingly bright, or dissolve into pieces, while objects and people become harder to define in the gloom. Crowds add further challenge, especially as people focused on the spectacle are less likely to look where they are going.
Always ask the person if they need assistance, and how they would like to be guided. Listen to their response and assist as needed. Young children may need help figuring out what help they need, but asking them first encourages them to think about and gain confidence in expressing their own needs.
An adult or older child will usually ask to take your arm, just above your elbow – and you could offer guiding assistance by asking “would you like to take my arm?” In this case, relax your arm and keep it tucked in to your side. Walk at your regular pace. By offering your arm, you put yourself one pace ahead. The person you are guiding will be more able to detect changes in terrain, slopes, steps, etc., even if you forget to describe them.
Read more tips on guiding and assisting someone with sight loss.
Bonus: Maintain Routines
Children thrive on familiarity, especially when they are very young. But the Holidays bring much excitement and uncommon activity that can disrupt well-established routines, often causing children to feel overwhelmed, over-tired, and cranky.
A good routine enables children to predict what will happen, step-by-step, from beginning to end, to understand what is expected of them, and to know what they can expect from you. This predictability and anticipation gives children comfort, helps them create a sense of security and calm.
Maintaining some familiar routines, and clearly adapting others, can be a solid anchor for your child through the Holiday Season. Particularly when they are likely to experience more unfamiliar people and places than usual, and their need for security, familiarity, and restorative calm will be increased.
For example, maintaining your child’s bedtime routine will be very valuable, even if you are spending the Holidays away from home – or you are hosting guests. If the regular routine and your Holiday plans do not fit together, how can you adopt a Holiday bedtime routine, rather than letting it fall away altogether?
The opening scene of Cinderella’s fairy-trail through Blenheim Palace in 2018 – just a hint of the beauty and magic awaiting visitors. How would you describe this scene to a blind or severely sight impaired person?
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About the Author
Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.
Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries. After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.
Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.