Pagans with disabilities face unseen challenges

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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.

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.