I Do! I Do!

Rae Pericharos chose to be seated next to her groom, George, during their Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony.
Reprinted from PN June 2002

Weddingshow we love them! And three couples prove that disability doesn't mean you can't have the wedding of your dreams.

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Rae and George Following military service, in 1975 George Pericharos had moved from New York to Colorado to indulge in mountaineering and the outdoors. The next year, he sustained a C5-6 cervical fracture with complete quadriplegia and spent six months in rehab. His home-health nurse set up a blind date with Rae Pericharos. The nurse believed that since Rae had worked on Craig Hospital's SCI team and was pursuing a nursing degree, the couple would be able to hurdle dating's first barriers.

"We have been together now for almost 20 years," Rae says, "and married for 13."

George's mother, Athena, was convinced that Greeks had to be married in a church, but Rae had always dreamed of being married outdoors. The couple took great pains to assure their wedding offered not only accessibility but also safety for George.

"Since I am 5'10", I did not want to stand above him," Rae says. "I wanted to be by his side. So we found a white-wicker chair for me to sit in next to him. For our strict Greek Orthodox wedding, we needed many conversations with the priest in order to change the ceremony due to the wheelchair. Greek couples commonly walk three circles around the altar during the ceremony. Because this would be awkward in our situation, the priest was willing to delete that."

Rae and George scheduled the ceremony for midmorning. The day was hot, so the best man kept a cool washcloth available for George. The best man also was in charge of remembering medications throughout the day.

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"I thought a wedding shirt might be more comfortable for George, but the one we had made was awful," Rae recalls. "A last-minute rush to a tuxedo shop allowed us to get a white tails jacket. We folded up the tails smoothly behind George's back. This allowed the short front jacket to lie flat.

"We also went into lengthy plans with the photographer. I emphasized I did not want to appear taller than George and also did not want to accentuate the wheelchair. This resulted in probably some of the best pictures of us we have ever had."

Rae asked George's family to do most of his care that week so she could have time for her own preparations: nails, massage, hair, etc. George planned bowel programs and showering for the day before the ceremony.

"We had all the traditional Greek wedding thingscrowns, large white candles, crossing our rings three times, etc.," Rae says. "Athena cooked the entire rehearsal dinner. We rented a hotel for the outdoor ceremony and the reception dinner."

The yard was flat and had a curved sidewalk for the altar. "I wanted George to require as little help as possible," Rae explains. "The best man pulled out the wicker chair and seated me after George was settled."

Rae advises couples in which one person uses a wheelchair to discuss their preferences in using attendants for personal care.

In true modern fashion, Heather Stewart and Geoff Hopkins met online.

"I wanted to make the wedding night our night only. I didn't want to spoil the romance," she says. "We didn't have to get up to meet an attendant."

If both partners use wheelchairs, perhaps one attendant per person on the wedding night might be more personal, she says. Having the attendants on call in the morning might allow the necessary spontaneity.

"I always pack an entire suitcase of emergency supplies so we'll be ready for anything," Rae says. "I also carry emergency medications and George's sheepskin and sliding board."

The new Mr. and Mrs. Pericharos had to postpone their honeymoon due to Rae's work schedule. They spent their wedding night at the hotel, for convenience as well as for privacy. But they eventually drove to Lake Tahoe, visited a casino, camped, and took boat rides on the lake.

Ivonne and Cliff Shortly after serving in the Gulf War, Cliff McDowell, now 37, retired from the U.S. Army due to an injury that left him quadriplegic. He is a former employee of the PVA National Office in Washington, D.C. A native of Barranquilla, Colombia, Ivonne Chaustre, 28, moved from Miami to Washington, D.C., where she currently works at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

"On June 1, 1998, Ivonne walked into my life when she came to PVA Headquarters for a public relations meeting for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games," Cliff recalls. "A friendship quickly developed, and by summer's end we were dating." They dated for two years and were married on February 2, 2002, at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami, Fla.

Like many modern professional couples, Cliff and Ivonne planned and paid for their wedding. A typical bride, Ivonne made the arrangements; and, like most grooms, Cliff remained on the sidelines.

Although Ivonne and Cliff had many friends and professional acquaintances in Washington, D.C., Ivonne believed it important to be married at the Miami church she grew up in. Having to plan from Washington, D.C., she relied on her mother and brother to scout possible reception locations. The site had to be close to the airport, have wheelchair-accessible banquet space, and offer a moderate price.

Cliff's accessibility issues and comfort, as well as that of the other guests, were Ivonne's number-one concern. So the couple chose the Airport Crowne Plaza, which is fully accessible.

The ceremony was a modified traditional Catholic wedding to accommodate the groom?s religious beliefs and accessibility needs. The bride and groom sat at the altar instead of kneeling as is customary. Cliff had no problem accessing the altar, because it was designed with ramps.

The limousine for the bride and groom was more accessible than the typical white Rolls Royces seen at most Miami weddings but less so than the rented Chrysler Sebring convertible the groom used that week. Although Cliff arrived in the Sebring, he and Ivonne returned to the hotel in the limo; the convertible's front seat couldn't accommodate the bride's full wedding-gown skirt and train.

"For our honeymoon, we went to the Bahamas and then to Las Vegas," Cliff says. "One thing to keep in mind is that our ideas and laws about accessibility are not always shared by other countries. In Las Vegas we had no problems, but the Bahamas offered more of a challenge."

The Grand Bahamian Sandals Resort had ramps to most attractions, but they were too steep for Cliff to use by himself.

"The attitude we experienced at the very beginning was also troubling," Ivonne adds. "[The staff] wanted to make decisions for us on what was accessible and what wasn't, instead of letting us make that determination. But overall, the service was excellent, the views breathtaking, and the romantic atmosphere worth the hassle."

The McDowells say it is important to realize that travel agents might not always understand accessibility needs enough to determine if a destination can accommodate a person's needs. However, this should not stop people with disabilities from traveling overseas. The key is to ask specific questions prior to booking a location.

Getting married soon? The McDowells offer this advice:

Realize that a wedding is about two people embarking on the biggest endeavor of their lives, not about the way napkins are folded or which flowers match the bridesmaids' dresses. In other words, don't sweat the small stuffand everything short of exchanging vows is small stuff!

Look at accessibility not as a requirement to make special accommodations for a few people but rather as the best gift you can give all your guests. Making people feel welcome, cared for, and appreciated is far more important than giving them trinkets to take home. This is what they will remember most about your wedding: You cared enough about having them there that you made it easy for them to get there and enjoy the festivities.

"To us, accessibility is about leveling the field for everyone, and it encompasses everything from having ramps to accommodating special diets to providing maps so all guests find the church."

Geoff and Heather "We e-mailed and talked on the phone for about two weeks before meeting in person for lunch," Heather Stewart says. The couple dated for about nine months before the Big Question.

Their wedding was scheduled for June 2 at Hopkins's mother's home in West Virginia. About 150 guests were expected to witness the ceremony, conducted by Cabell County Circuit Senior Judge Alfred E. Ferguson.

Hopkins, an associate director of Sports and Recreation with the Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., became paraplegic in a motorcycle accident on September 15, 1988, after serving four years in the U.S. Army. Stewart is a program coordinator for the nonprofit organization The Washington EnvironMentors Project.

Stewart and Hopkins believe their wedding was "an expression of us."

Both wanted to be involved in the creativity and decisions. However, Hopkins travels a good deal due to his job, so much of the planning was left to Stewart.

"While we both made the final decision on the style and creative details, I think I initiated most of the ideas," Stewart says.

Selecting the wedding location was difficult for Stewart. Her family is in Kansas, and that's where the vows were originally to take place. But after visiting Hopkins's mother's home, they decided it "just felt right."

The ceremony and reception took place in the home's backyard garden against a background of mountains. Because of the outdoor location, Stewart and Hopkins had to find accessible solutions for moving their guests down a slight hill to the tent reception and finding an accessible area for the porta-potties. Another challenge was where the bridal party would stand.

"We wanted them to walk down the aisle and then into a beautiful circle garden Geoff's mother created," Stewart says. "One of our groomsmen uses a wheelchair, and the path inside the circle was not wide enough for the chair. However, Geoff's mother widened the circle so they all would fit."

Function or party organizers often set tables aside for wheelchair users, with their significant others seated across the table from them. "It feels awkward and not inclusive, so we definitely found a way to leave the seating open at our reception," Hopkins says. "Unfortunately, we didn't have that option with the ceremony due to the yard's slopes. Only one square area was suitable for wheelchair users, but there was room for companions to sit next to them."

An antique fire truck carried the new Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins and the bridal party around the block. They also had a DJ and planned to dance the night away.

"We love that we got to write and plan and design everything in our wedding," the couple says. "Because it was at home, we had complete control. We wrote our vows and designed the whole ceremony."

"If we were holding the wedding at a public garden or any other nonfamily-owned place, the ceremony part may not have worked," Hopkins explains. "No public garden would widen a path for us or move their bathrooms. So, when searching for outside locations, make sure you go to the site and explore the areas in which you plan to have guests. And don?t make all the wheelchair users sit together; give them the option, if it is available."

? Simply the Best The ideal wedding makes the bride and groom and their guests happy and comfortable. Although customs may remain, new trends and creative ideas are definitely part of the mix. Such a wedding combines the best of the oldand the new.


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