Ceremony Buddies: An Essential Resource for an Inclusive Ceremony

by © Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant
Originally published in The Celebrant, Issue 3, March 2020, pp 83-85
Republished 23/11/2022 with the permission of the Editor.
Categories: | Inclusive Weddings | Published Article | 
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Hands of an
                  elderly person being held by both hands of a younger
                  personI invite you to briefly step aside from your role as the Celebrant and into the shoes of a guest. You’ve arrived early and taken your seat. You hear other guests arriving, greeting one another. You feel the excitement building. Last minute preparations are happening around you. There is a hush as the processional music starts. You hear footsteps and the swish of the bridesmaids’ skirts. For a brief and tantalising moment you catch a whiff of the fragrance of the flowers in the bouquets as they are carried past you. You feel the change in mood, hear the audible gasp as the bride enters. You hear the click of her heels, the rustle and swish of her gown, the footsteps of her proud father, escorting her. You notice there is a pause as the music stops. You then hear the Celebrant speaking. But you can see nothing. You are blind.

How much richer an experience would it have been for you if someone had been whispering in your ear, describing the scene around you, telling you who was arriving, describing the styling, the flowers, the groom and groomsmen and what they are wearing, the Celebrant, the bridesmaids’ dresses and the bride’s gown, whether she is wearing a veil, and giving a commentary on the actions that go with the words of the ceremony.

Now mentally move to the front. Step back into your role as the Celebrant. Look out at the guests. Will each and every one of them be able to fully participate in the ceremony? Do you even know if any one of them has special needs?

As a part of my commitment to inclusion, I talk to my couples about guests with special needs. I quite unashamedly interrogate them.

The sad truth is that many are not fully aware of challenges individual guests might face, either in accessing their ceremony venue or in being able to fully enjoy, understand, or participate in, the ceremony.

Long, probing, conversations follow.

Once we have identified which of their guests may have special needs, I start to explore with the couple how those special needs might manifest themselves, how they may impact on the extent to which the guest will be able to enjoy the ceremony and participate in it, and whether other guests might be impacted.

I also urge them to avoid excluding someone because of their special needs. And then I suggest that a good way to accommodate the needs of such guests and to enhance their capacity to enjoy their ceremony is to appoint a dedicated Ceremony Buddy for each.

What is a Ceremony Buddy?

A Ceremony Buddy is someone who, during the ceremony, sits or stands with a guest who has special needs and
  • Describes (for guests with vision impairment)’
  • Commentates (for guests whose primary language isn’t English, and for guests with hearing impairment)
  • Explains (for guests from a different culture, guests who are intellectually challenged, and for guests with dementia or acquired brain injury)
  • Calms (for guests with dementia, autism, PTSD, or sensory processing disorders)
Ceremony Buddies should be carefully matched to the specific needs of the guest. They may need fluency in another language, including sign language. If at all possible, a Ceremony Buddy should be someone who is known to the person they are appointed to assist and able to spend some time ahead of the ceremony day talking about how they will help and support on the day. If that’s not possible, the Ceremony Buddy should at least spend some time with the person immediately prior to the ceremony.

The Ceremony Buddy should also attend any on-site rehearsal and view the rehearsal while seated in their allocated seat.

Specific things that should be checked and taken into account

Line of sight between the guest and the Ceremony Buddy, and between you, the Celebrant, and the couple.
In order to check and plan this, you will need to be familiar with the venue, through either direct experience or knowledge vicariously acquired through videos, photographs, and floor plans. You will also need to have the choreography of the ceremony finalized and diagrammed.
Positioning of seating
When you are planning with the needs of one person in mind. it is critical to simultaneously keep in mind the enjoyment of the other guests and to ensure that meeting the needs of one does not compromise the experience of the other. You will need to carefully consider how and where to seat any guest with special needs and their Ceremony Buddy. For some, it may be that the ideal seating position is to the side and away from the main block of seating, but still up the front. For others, an aisle seat may be the answer.
For guests, particularly those in close proximity to the special needs person, the sound of the human voice will be coming from two directions; from where the Celebrant and any other participants in the ceremony are positioned, and from where the Ceremony Buddy and the person they’re assisting are seated or standing. The latter, even if whispering, can make it very hard to hear the former. An acoustic rehearsal, where the conditions are replicated as far as possible, can go a long way to achieving an acceptable balance between the two.
The total sensory load before, after, and during the ceremony
How loud the music is, the presence  of other ambient noise, how bright any artificial lighting is or outdoor space is, how much movement there will be should be checked and, if necessary, toned down.
How many guests with special needs will be present

The challenge for celebrants

While I would never suggest that any person be excluded from attending the ceremony on grounds of their special needs, each additional person who needs a Ceremony Buddy adds a further degree of complexity to the planning process and may require more than a pinch of creativity added to your empathy.

Thanks for reading!

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                        Jennifer Cram
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