Why Did It Take A Pandemic For America To Make Halloween Accessible?

Keep the candy chutes!

Brothers Issac and Gabriel Rogers, ages 5 and 6, have never been trick-or-treating in their Blairsville, Pennsylvania community. Both brothers are autistic; Isaac also has gross motor delays that make typical trick-or-treating difficult. Steps, dark porches, doorbells, having to speak to strangers or be in close contact with someone dressed in a surprising costume all have made the typical Halloween night impossible for the family of five, according to mom Jess. In the past, they’ve done smaller events geared towards young kids like trunk-or-treats, but this year she decided that the regulations in place for pandemic candy distribution would make for a safe and accessible night for their entire family. And she was right.

The candy chutes, tables of treats placed near the sidewalk to maintain distance, and her town’s directive to give everyone their six feet of personal space helped her family have a terrific night. Since Saturday, Isaac, who is nonverbal, has used his adaptive communication device to repeatedly tell his family, “Candy!” His big brother exclaimed that it was the best day of his life, though mom notes he often thinks many days are the best day of his life.

My own 7-year-old daughter, Naomi, has mild cerebral palsy and a visual field deficit. While she can run, play, and keep up with her typically developing peers without much hindrance in predictable conditions, she often struggles with strange steps and sidewalks at dusk — Halloween being a prime example of this. This year, as she skipped from house to house in our Pittsburgh neighborhood dressed as her favorite scientist from Netflix’s Emily’s Wonder Lab, we didn’t have to worry about the embarrassment of falling face-first and actually returned home with a costume without ripped knees for the first time ever.

For the nation’s children who use a walker or wheelchair, those candy chutes and sidewalk-reachable tables provided accessibility that has been sorely lacking from this holiday.

Azeb Tenges, 8, had the best Halloween experience of her life. Azeb uses a wheelchair to get around many days. This year, the candy chutes and tables near the sidewalk in her Lexington, KY neighborhood meant her dad didn’t have to carry her up steps, and her siblings didn’t have to grab candy for her when they went up to the porch. This ability to be fully included in such a fun event during a year that has been turned topsy-turvy had a huge impact on Azeb. She tells Romper, “I really liked my wheelchair costume and seeing everyone in the neighborhood, and that I didn’t have to get out of my wheelchair a lot.”

Azeb had her best Halloween ever this year. Photo courtesy of the author.

Azeb’s mom, Brianna, was so excited by Target’s adaptive costumes that she pre-ordered to make sure they got one. “I’ve seen people in the cerebral palsy group post these awesome wheelchair costumes and I’m just not that kind of person. I’m not crafty or creative, but I’ll buy something!” Azeb cruised from house to house with her siblings and her mom noticed a definite change in her attitude compared to previous years. “She said Happy Halloween a lot more, and could focus on the actual people rather than focusing on unbuckling her belt, standing up, or holding hands to walk up a step.”

Accessibility is good for all kids, not just those who need it.

After twenty years as a pediatric physical therapist, Beth Jacks, MS PT, is used to hearing frustration from her clients about the ways that typical community events are not accessible to all kids. As a mom of a child with a disability herself, she not only has traveled this path professionally but personally. Her 17-year old daughter Halle has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), commonly known as “brittle bone disease.” With a range of severities and types, kids with OI can be at particular risk for COVID-19. Even coughing can break ribs, so a mild case could still have dire consequences. The socially-distant, accessible Halloween created a positive buzz in the circles she is a part of. “Accessibility is good for all kids, not just those who need it,” she says.

Accessibility is good for all kids. Jamie Davis Smith is a D.C. area ambassador/parent advocate for Little Lobbyists. She advocates strongly for universal design, which is the belief that accessible spaces benefit everyone, not just those with visible disabilities. Spaces and events that are created using universal design simply remove barriers to those with disabilities without changing the function of the space or event — and inclusivity is good for every kid. “The concept is that it's possible to design things in a way that is accessible to everyone without depriving typically developing kids of anything,’” she explains. “That is what this Halloween was to me!”

Smith’s 14-year-old daughter Claire is wheelchair dependent and nonverbal, but communicated to her family how much she enjoyed this Halloween. She was able to place her bag at the end of chutes or grab candy and treats off tables. “It was clear how happy she was. She was definitely less frustrated than in previous years.”

The author's daughter, in the white coat and pink leggings, has cerebral palsy and visual field deficit. Photo courtesy of the author.
Keep the candy chutes!

Even for children who do not trick-or-treat, the adaptations to Halloween this year to accommodate CDC guidelines created a better experience. Hudson, 9, has cerebral palsy and is tube-fed and power-chair dependent. His mom Jennifer Miller shared that while he can’t eat candy so didn’t go house to house in their Seattle suburb, he loved sitting on their porch and launching the candy down the chute to waiting friends. “I let all my neighbors know that the chute is dual purpose for kids in wheelchairs!” She hopes to encourage neighbors to use them every year, not just during a pandemic.

In the cerebral palsy group Miller is a part of, admin and disability advocate Allison Goldstein Reynolds shared a meme encouraging people to "keep the chute" that was re-shared hundreds of times. She isn’t sure who the original author is, but she hopes those with typical kids will take the message to heart. “Everybody said they are going to save [the chutes] because they enjoyed it also.”

In a year where most of our traditions have been upended and our kids have faced disappointments big and small, it is a small silver lining that amidst the carnage of 2020, many more kids were included in Halloween in a safe and inclusive way. Candy chutes, we hope to see you in 2021.