Pagans with disabilities face unseen challenges

Terence P Ward —  May 25, 2016 — 23 Comments

TWH –In the collective Pagan communities, it is not at all unusual to encounter people with disabilities. There are no studies to suggest that there are more Pagans and polytheists with disabilities than in any other cultural and religious subgroup. However, the fact that such people are so visible might indicate a level of accommodation and acceptance that may not be present within other communities Whether or not being under the Pagan umbrella provides more support, many people with disabilities still yearn for better accessibility on festival grounds and in ritual spaces, and can still often feel isolated from their community of choice when unable to fully participate.

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Three years ago The Wild Hunt reported that Janet Callahan and Tara “Masery” Miller were conducting a survey about festival experiences for people with disabilities as part of the Pagan Accessibility Project. The two were willing to offer some insights from those findings and from their own experiences in the Pagan community. Callahan provided an overview of what they found at that time:

We had about 40 responses, covering a wide range of disabilities and chronic illnesses. Respondents also covered a wide range of ages from the 20s to 50s, plus several responses from parents of children with disabilities.

Common themes in the responses were that most (not all) event coordinators, when asked about specific accommodations, tried to be helpful, but didn’t always know how to be helpful.

When they weren’t helpful, they often “blew off” concerns about there being a need for accommodations, or flatly said that they could not provide help or were not required to provide assistance. This was particularly true for the blind/visually impaired and the deaf/hard of hearing, but the issue went across all categories.

Outdoor events seemed most commonly a problem, in terms of getting to the location, and then getting from parking to the actual event, and a lack of seating. Camping, too, can be a challenge for some, and camping areas aren’t always easy to get to, nor are setting up tents and other equipment easy for those with physical challenges.

Finding quiet areas for those who were over-stimulated or otherwise in need of a break was also frequently listed as a challenge.

A fair number of people (7 of 40) stated that they had been turned away from a coven or other small group due to their disability.

Interestingly, the need for public transportation was also brought up multiple times. It’s not uncommon for those with disabilities to be living on a fixed income, and it’s not uncommon for some disabilities to make driving difficult or impossible.

Callahan said that the greatest challenges come from the outdoor events, which are understandably quite common among Pagans. She said, “It’s not like we’re going to not have events in the park, or events that are camping based, but we should think about the locations we choose,” she explained. “We should try to have spaces with electricity available, and spaces that are closer to the action (or some way to get around the camping venue). Even day events in parks can be better or worse depending on the venue, and unless one of the organizers knows that, it’s hard for them to make better choices.”

Grove of Gaia Fest 2015 [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Grove of Gaia Fest in Pittsburgh makes accommodations its priority. [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

Part of the challenge of accommodating people with different levels of ability is that an organizer might not know what questions to ask potential attendees. This is particularly important if changing the venue is impractical.  The answers to well-placed question can help potential attendees  decide if they wish to participate and, if they do, how they must prepare in advance and what obstacles they might encounter.

Chesh, a Pagan who wrestles with mobility issues, provided a wide array of such questions as examples, including ones that are of general interest such as the length of the ritual, whether there will be consumption of alcohol, and if one should dress for indoor or outdoor activities. Others that Chesh suggested included if there would be a safe space or outlet for people who might become overstimulated, where the parking is located, what types of chairs will be provided, what the accessibility of toilet facilities will be, and what is quality of lighting into and out of the area.

Issues reach beyond those of the physical space, however. Callahan said, “Because many of our covens and circles are small, personal groups, those who struggle with interpersonal relationships are often not welcome. Those with frequent illnesses, or the sorts of conditions that mean their ability to participate varies greatly also have a hard time finding groups that will accept them. Those with mental health issues frequently find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place; many covens and other working groups still tell people that if they have mental health issues, they are not eligible to join. That’s medicated or not, no matter what the actual diagnosis might be.”

There is still another issue that might be unique to Pagan communities. Callahan explained:

Many of us with disabilities or chronic illnesses of any sort are frequently told that if we “really believed” in magick, we’d find a magickal way to fix ourselves, and if we can’t, we aren’t “Pagan enough.” But one of the things I’ve realized over the years is that some things are not broken in the sense that they need to be fixed.

Miller said she’s also faced that kind of reaction. “I was told this a few times,” she said. “I have a genetic disorder, Turner Mosaic, which caused a collapse of my endocrine system. The impression I got at workshops and presentations (even Deepak Chopra) was that I wasn’t awakening enough to the healing of the universe or didn’t believe enough in magic. I tried magic, prayer, offerings, meditation, and crystal work. It wasn’t until I found professional specialists with a good bedside manner that I started to feel better. Meditation helped me conquer my fears but there isn’t always miracle. The best way for the Pagan community to assist someone who is ill is to pray for them if a person asks, offer to bring food if they can’t cook, [and] assist with transportation…” In short, to act as if they are in community together.

A source of frustration for Pagans with disabilities is the frequency with which others don’t seem willing to understand their perspective. Chesh recalled a time when she broached this very topic with one group, which held held rituals that she found particularly challenging, given her mobility issues.

Even after I opened a discussion about different types of access needs (by gently asking what they usually provide and what the community’s needs are besides me) not a single person was pro-active about asking me how to make my access easier. They did not even suggest easy ways by bringing a folding chair or offering to shine a torch to light my way. But I was very welcome to “just turn up” and “have a go,” without any supportive infrastructure. They “might” wait for me in the grassy knoll, to show me the way to the ritual site I’ve never seen before.

When I asked how often they schedule indoor open rits (especially in the winter), I was told, “John doesn’t like indoor rituals, so we just don’t do them.” John, who is a little older than me and appears very able-bodied, nodded his head wisely at this, and offered no other explanation. I gently said that indoor rits might make a big difference in access for me, and I was told — in completely friendly and oblivious terms — that I was welcome to lead some to make that happen.

The control that ritual organizers have over the experience should not be underestimated, she said. “For example, ritual leaders frequently plan a trek down a steep hill to the fire circle on uneven ground in the dark in the cold,” which can put even more able-bodied people off. Simply ferrying people with disabilities to the end point without specifically incorporating that process into the ritual can be disruptive to the energy, she pointed out, and diminish the experience for everyone involved.

Miller agreed that outdoor events, popular as they are, require some extra effort to be inclusive. “Parking that is very close to the event” is one non-negotiable, she said. “Have it on level ground ([It] doesn’t have to be paved, just not rocky or muddy) so it’s easier for the disabled or elderly to use canes, crutches, etc. If there are restrooms available make sure there is a handicapped stall. Pagan counselor Drake Spaeth recommends to have a quiet space for people after an intense ritual. This can help anyone ‘come down’ and it is especially important for people with anxiety and PTSD.”

Pagan Federation dedicates ritual to those Pagans with disabilities who could not attend its 45th Anniversary event [Video Still]

Pagan Federation dedicates ritual to those Pagans with disabilities who could not attend its 45th Anniversary event. Watch video on Vimeo [Video Still]

It may be challenging to incorporate accommodations into rituals. And those challenges only grow if the accommodations are an afterthought.  Specialists such as interpreters for those with sight or hearing difficulties must be arranged well in advance, and the process of asking questions can also yield many helpful solutions that are easier to execute prior to an event’s launch.  “I think the key is to have open discussions with folks of various ability levels to find out what is actually needed, not to make assumptions and to avoid being patronising,” Chesh agreed.

Given that this can be a steep learning curve for an organizer, Miller recommends pleasantness and patience when possible. “Offer friendly advice,” she said. “If an accommodation isn’t offered, the organizer may not have seen that need yet. Don’t suspect malice until someone gets upset over the advice or flat out refuses to assist.”

There are also many people with disabilities whose voices are not included in this article. Some are quite isolated and have difficulty attending events at all, and rely almost entirely upon the internet to make contact with people of like mind. The Wild Hunt did reach out to a number of Pagans with disabilities about sharing their perspectives, but one thing that is all too common is that some disabilities — regardless of its other impacts — sap energy and make otherwise simple tasks much more difficult, such as sending an email or typing out a sentence or two in reaction. We would like to acknowledge these unheard voices within our community.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Stephen McGuire

    This was a good article. I used to be very fit and healthy, but 3 strokes in 5 years put an end to that. Walking is a serious problem for me, as I have left-side weakness and no balance. So I’m pretty much confined to a wheelchair (I can use a walker, but only for short distances). I also have stamina issues. While most people empathize, I know they don’t really understand. I didn’t understand, either, until now. So I’ve stayed away from events/rituals, for the very reasons you articulate.

  • Kyrja Withers

    Thank you. Although I am an able-bodied individual, I know many who are not. This reminder and information is welcome.

  • Vik-Thor

    “that if we “really believed” in magick, we’d find a magickal way to fix ourselves, and if we can’t, we aren’t “Pagan enough.” – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/#sthash.HRIsmcZr.dpuf

    That quote just blows me away. People really believe that magick can help in something that modern medicine hasn’t been able to solve? Even most Christians don’t think their prayers are more effective than medicine. Religion/rituals/prayers/magick are not substitutes for medicine/science. At their best, they are supplements, complementing, I’m in my late 40s, and recently discovered I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, which seems to have recently started leaking. I am not relying on the prayers of my mom’s church to miraculously give me a normal, tricuspid valve, just like I wouldn’t rely on a pagan ritual. (I’m pretty much a solitary Humanistic Pagan, so don’t have a local group to rely on.)

    The healing ritual I will be participating in will occur in a surgical suite, with a member of the Hippocratic Oathtakers presiding. 🙂

    • kadiera

      Actually, I find that magick comes up most frequently on problems that modern medicine can’t solve….

      • Rhoanna

        And how well does it solve those problems?

      • ELNIGMA

        Look, if you know any magickians, spiritualists, mystical sorts of person etc. who never got sick and never died, then I’ll think you have a point.

    • Sylv Taylor

      Yeah, I’ve run into plenty of mind-over matter neopagans and new-agers. Apparently being a paraplegic with lupus and cancer is my fault because I ‘don’t want to get better’ and ‘mind over matter’ and stuff like that.

  • Elinei

    I have been particularly unhappy with leaders of Twilight Covening, where many of the “clans” (intensives) are promoted as being specifically NON-disability friendly. I won’t fault individuals who host Pagan gatherings in their homes — no one is asking you to install ramps or widen doorways — but it should be possible to find or make a wheelchair/walker-accessible outdoor space. It should be possible to find creative ways to include rather than exclude.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    I suspect that as many of us (raises hand) get older, these issues are only going to become more important.

  • FullNovemberMoon

    I am in a wheelchair and accessibility is always an issue for me both with getting over grass and terrain at outdoor events and portable bathrooms that aren’t accessable.
    As for the “heal thyself” aspect, I believe I chose disability in this life for a reason. Every child in my family and friends family aren’t afraid or uncomfortable with disabilities because I am here. Same with other disabilities they are not punishments or curses to be fixed they are opportunities to teach others and ourselves patience and compassion.

    • ELNIGMA

      You’re attitude is great, but many disabled people hate it and would rather have the opportunities afforded by great health.

      • FullNovemberMoon

        No where in my post did I say anyone shouldn’t have health care. Why would I? For me I have a birth defect and my foot amputated, nothing that can be cured by faith or medicine. For me that is where I am and I am fine with it. I am also fine with healthcare, the medical field and everything that goes with it. For ME which is what I wrote about I believe my disability is my learning lesson. Didn’t say it had to be for everyone else or they shouldn’t do something if the technology exists. They are also not anyone’s fault was the point I was making and for anyone to say if you were enlightened enough you could heal yourself is insulting and ridiculous.

        • ELNIGMA

          I still say your attitude is great, even if it isn’t shared by many disabled people. IA with you about that last. Guatama Buddha *was* enlightened, had a great attitude, intense willpower, positivity and hope, a lack of attachment to disease- all that stuff, (and just as he’d taught would happen, unashamedly, victoriously, even), he still got old, sick, and died.

          • kenofken

            It’s sort of the nature of embodied life on this plane. “Disabled” is not as binary or fixed a condition as we tell ourselves. Of course we can draw legal and cultural lines around what we call daily life activities – the ability to drive a car or walk etc. We can define a “disability” as a limitation to someone’s particular abilities, but what does it mean to say a person is “disabled” or “able”?

            Stephen Hawking clearly has a major disability. It has cut him off from very many of the activities most of us take for granted. Is HE disabled? I dunno. On his home turf of higher mathematics and physics, the vast majority of people who ever share a space with him are mentally challenged by comparison. Is it by some saintly grace or superhuman optimism that he finds worth and meaning in his life? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Would he give it all up tomorrow if he had the choice of being “normal” like the rest of us able-bodied folk? The answer that seems obvious to you and I may be a whole lot more complex from where he sits.

            I have on the wall in front of me a hauntingly beautiful painting of a full moon over a lake. It was painted by a woman who was, at the time, functionally blind from macular degeneration. I have perfect use of my eyes and limbs and I can just draw stick figures, if I take my time…My inability to paint is not a disability in the same sense as blindness, but at the same time, my life would be richer in one aspect if I could give expression to the things I see and feel within me. I cannot sing worth a damn, and on and on.

            I suppose to be truly “abled”, we would each have to be able to do every possible activity to the highest potential humanity has in all of these various things. None of us are ever going to do that. We work from where we are, we maximize what we have and we find workarounds for what we don’t. Hopefully, we all try to look out for one another and fill in each other’s gaps a bit. It’s also an inevitable truth that none of us will get more able bodied over the long haul, and anyone who doesn’t die in their prime years will sooner or later know disability.

  • As a disabled member of the community I would like to say that I truly appreciate this article! I am one who lives in isolation, not because of lack of energy but because I cannot drive, know no other Pagans in person, and therefore find attending Any event in person (and possibly meeting more people and building relationships) very challenging. I have noticed online when I mention the fact the replies are less than helpful, even when it is clear that the person meant to be.

    I have no wish to be negative but I sincerely hope this article may become a reference for people interested in including those with special needs so I would like to make one minor correction. The blind and visually impaired do NOT need professional help, and especially do not need interpreters. I understand the inclination to lump us together with the hearing impaired and deaf but it is not the same. We do need assistance, and having something planned and thought out (preferably discussed with a few blind people, not sighted people who believe they know what the blind need) would make attending events a reality for many more people. However, we can communicate and to generalize the majority who have special needs are aware of them and are able to explain what they may need and look after most of it for themselves. Most of the best assistance I ever received was from people without any prior knowledge of the blind, professionals are not required!

    Something I did notice that no one mentioned is that the blind (especially to arrive at an event, indoor, outdoor, large or small on their own) may well be accompanied by a guide dog. Other disabilities also have service dogs, and the dogs do Need to be taken into account! An area to relieve them is the most important point. A lot of us carry most of what we need but easy access to fresh clean water for the dog (especially outside) is always helpful. And sorry but they take up space! Which means it is important to think of them before hand because it isn’t easy for an eighty pound Shepherd to just squeeze in, no matter how much he may want to.

    I do hope there is more of an effort in the community as a whole because without my computer and online resources like The Wild Hunt and patheos I would feel completely alone (in my Witchcraft) and have no real means of educating myself since most books are still unavailable in an accessible format.

  • Wolfsbane

    I’ve had people make condescending remarks about my disability which intimated that it made me somehow unworthy of being a Pagan.

    It’s too bad we don’t still hang Nazis like we did at Nuremberg.

    Unfortunately, this is something that hardly exclusive to the Pagan community. Back in the ’90s I witnessed a friend being denied the right participate in a pride celebration because he was blind and ‘the insurance wouldn’t cover it.’ I’m on discussion groups and find twenty years later and it still hasn’t really changed.

    Most states have some sort of human rights commission. How many people who experience this sort of discrimination make a complaint? That seems like the first step to sorting this problem.

  • ELNIGMA

    This is a good article. One thing that’s not addressed is finances – this may be about festivals only, but groups trying to buy spaces, they often find buildings in prime locations near public transit and with modern disability access outside of what they can afford.
    Many disabled people often need a person available by them when they’re out doing stuff, if they think they will need that, it needs to be in their plans. The ritualists are rightly fixed on doing the rituals, the people handling admission and security – rightly fixed on doing those tasks. If a disabled person needs more sorts of help, like people who will help push their chairs, etc., come with a buddy who will. This is simply part of making plans to attend – anywhere.

    • yewtree

      I think the thing to do here is work out how much it costs to do the event with disabled access and distribute costs accordingly – and add a sliding scale for those who really cannot afford it.

  • Eleanor Llewelyn

    I have almost given up trying to go to events. I have asked for lifts but have been ignored. I have told I can’t go to rituals as I can’t stand up all the time. Perhaps we should get a camp next year for us. I would be happy to help.

    • yewtree

      In the UK, chairs are provided for those who can’t stand. And scooters would be accommodated

  • Frank Stormcatcher

    Excellent article! And just a little perspective from the organizer side:
    We held an inaugural Samhain cabin-camping event last year at a local historic park, and were quite surprised to discover how many of our attendees were older Pagans and/or had mobility issues. We did our best to accommodate folks, and over all we did ok, but we definitely saw room for improvement.
    This year, we are making sure to ask attendees during the registration process about any mobility or similar issues so that we can factor those into cabin assignments, ritual planning, etc. The site will never be 100% accessible, but we are doing what we can to make it as inclusive as possible.
    Speaking as an organizer, it really helps us when we know ahead of time what folks with disabilities and/or mobility issues need from us. If the registration page doesn’t have a space for needs or a notes field, please contact the organizers directly. Unless the organizer is a complete ********, they will appreciate the information.

    • Cathryn Meer Bauer

      Thank you and the others in this thread for your efforts to accommodate. Unfortunately, some organizers are complete *******s.

  • Cathryn Meer Bauer

    I very much appreciate this discussion. I have seen this issue from several different angles, and I agree change is needed. I am a person with disability myself; I have been a captioner for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons; and I have also been in the position of being uneasy with people whose psychiatric disability was not IMO sufficiently contained for them to be in the situation (e.g., they could and did cause harm) or that I simply didn’t understand well which meant some research of my own on interacting with persons with autism. (As I write this, I realize that I do not know for a fact that autism is a “psychiatric disability,” and my Google search did not yield decisive results. I hope I have not mischaracterized it, and if I have, I sincerely regret this.)

    My own disability has become kind of a bellwether for me with regard to connecting with other Pagans. If it’s a matter of simply not understanding the situation but being willing to learn and compromise to expand accessibility, I’m there. If I’m told I won’t be “catered to” (yep, that just happened), I’m not. I don’t have time for that person or group. I have a mild form of asthma which is exacerbated by some scents and some amount of smoke. I always go to any Pagan gathering medicated to the max, and I have on occasion offered to bring the incense since there are some kinds that don’t bother me. So I take every bit of responsibility as I can muster for keeping myself safe and comfortable, having emergency medication handy, and learning some alternative health techniques for stopping an asthma attack in its tracks. It hasn’t been enough.

    That is my own answer. It is a divisive one, and hopefully not one that will have to be made in future.