Access and Pagan Practice

Welcome! This post is going out as part of the fourth yearly Blogging Against Disabilism Day hosted by Diary of a Goldfish . As I mentioned in March, I’ve been dealing with some long-lasting health issues, and have recently come to the conclusion that thinking of this as disability in a number of senses (even though I hope that there will continue to be further recovery) is the sensible thing to do.

And I knew that for BADD, I really wanted to talk about the intersection with the modern Pagan community. On Friday, I posted about my own take on my personal responsibilities and some practical process pieces, because the community parts, below, kept getting longer and longer.

For those coming here via BADD links:

I hope much of this content (and Friday’s post, linked above) will be of interest for non-Pagans: many of the things I’m going to mention here apply to anyone hosting small events in their home that have a specific goal or focus, whether that’s religious or educational or personal. Some points, of course, are specific to Pagan religions, but I’ll try to explain those as I go.

If you’re not familiar with modern Paganism and want to learn more, you might want to check out the three posts in my Background – Intro link. These begin by talking about Paganism in general (part one), religious witchcraft and Wicca (part two) and my personal practice (part three). I also welcome sincere questions, though due to my own needs and commitments, I may not be able to respond immediately (May 1st is a significant holy day for a number of Pagans, including me, though my group ritual is actually tomorrow.)

The bare minimum you need to know for the rest of this post to make sense:

  • There are many different religions under the Pagan umbrella with a wide range of practices and beliefs. For length reasons, I can’t go into lots of detail here, but think of it like the range of *all* of the strands of the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in all their myriad forms, and then some.
  • Many Pagan religions put a significant value on self-responsibility in varying forms. This has both benefits and challenges for people with accessibility needs.
  • I follow and lead a group in a specific path (tradition) that has a specific way of doing things for many common ritual tasks. (Much like lots of religious traditions). Some things are up for negotiation, some things aren’t.
  • Pagan groups in general are often autonomous but exist in context in a community: they set their own guidelines in accordance with their specific path. Obviously, guidance from teachers and other leaders in the community and community interactions in general help shape these choices.
  • Paid clergy are uncommon: costs beyond nominal expenses are usually shared by all in the group in some form.
  • Many Pagan groups meet in private homes – this raises all sorts of access considerations, which I’ll be talking about below. They’re also often small, so you’re often balancing the needs of 3-13 people, not dozens.
  • There are some larger Pagan events – both open/public rituals (in parks or larger indoor spaces), but also camping festivals and indoor weekend conferences.
  • While the number of Pagans is growing (though exact stats are tricky to manage, for varied reasons), there are some areas with many Pagan group options, and some places where there are few to no group options available to someone due to transportation, scheduling, or interest issues. (i.e. sometimes there’s a Pagan group with a different set of practices or focus than someone prefers.) Many Pagans practice on their own as a result, or with close family members. (In this post, I’m focusing on group work, however, since individual adaptations are a lot simpler to negotiate.)
  • We are, after all, in this, talking about the practice of religion, a subject where people often have very strong emotional yearnings, connections, and desires. Sometimes the obvious ‘logical’ thing doesn’t actually serve as well as we’d wish. (I’ll be coming back to this one.)

Onward to the actual post! First, I want to talk about the things that we could do better (as a community in general, and specific parts of that community in places), and then I want to talk about some tools that I think deserve broader attention in doing some of those things better.

What we could do better:

Remember we have a wide range of abilities:

I think that Pagans who do even semi-regular group work do end up being a bit more aware of this than many people in broader society. That’s both because people often are relatively open about talking about it, and because aspects of our community bring out certain issues a little more clearly than they might in an established religious community with a fixed building.

However, I keep running into people who tell me of groups and public events who haven’t given any attention to it.

They design rituals that involve lots of dancing or movement without figuring out a meaningful way to participate for people with mobility challenges. They use clouds and clouds of sage smudging or incense to purify the space without considering allergies. They offer food and drink choices in ritual that leave people out of the shared meal, no matter how symbolic it is. And a lot of ritual methods are especially challenging for people with hearing or vision impairments, because there often isn’t a reliable framework they can rely on from ritual to ritual or an alternate way to participate in some practices. And as a community, we encourage a lot of reading as a method of one kind of learning, without giving a lot of support to those with learning disabilities that make in-depth reading difficult.

You might not be aware of all of the possibilities, but it doesn’t take much to realise that there probably *are* going to be a wide range of different needs and requests for accommodation. Figuring out in advance which basic categories you’re happy to accommodate (and would be easy), which ones you might be able to do, but would take some effort and planning, and which ones you’re just not able to do right now is a good move.

I’d also encourage groups to look for (and design) ways that people with different skills and abilities can help at the event. A lot of early volunteer tasks are hard for mobility challenged people (moving chairs or tables, for example.) Finding tasks that someone can help with while sitting (folding pamphlets, welcoming people, directing where food should go on the potluck table, etc) can be really useful while welcoming a wider range of volunteers.

Reevaluate if there are substantial changes in your group practice – where you meet, when you meet, what you do.

Provide information up front about what to expect.

This is the one I think we’re especially lousy about and that would be quite easy to fix. Many groups do provide an email or phone number for questions, but some of these communication methods are not answered as promptly as we’d like. Plus, simply having to ask can make someone with limits feel awkward. Putting the information out in some more neutral form is easier for everyone (and it’ll save work for the event organisers if you use the same spaces or do the same kinds of things regularly: do this once, check it quickly for any changes for future events, and you’re good to go.)

I’ve got some of this information scattered through my coven information process, but I want in the next few weeks to pull it out into its own page. I have, however, done my best to make it clear with the Twin Cities Pagan Pride event (last fall’s event info page is here – we’ll be at a different site this year, so I need to do some major updates.) Note that it doesn’t mean you have to be able to offer solutions to all kinds of access problems. It’s quite possible you won’t. But letting people know what they can expect helps them plan ahead or to ask more detailed questions.

Information I’d love to see offered reliably:

  • Clear directions to the site, including how close parking is to the event location.
  • Mobility access: Are there stairs? Is there an elevator or ramp someone can use instead? Is it possible to manage a wheelchair, scooter, or walker in those spaces or are there tight turns?
  • What’s the seating like? Does someone need to bring their own chair? What if they can’t stand during the ritual or other event?
  • Are you going to be using sage to smudge, incense, scented oils, or anything else that might trigger a scent allergy or asthma?
  • Is food going to be shared in ritual? If so, what type? What should people do if they can’t consume that?
  • About how long is the event expected to run? (And please split out the event and social time after.) Obviously, this may often be a rough guide, since ritual length can vary based on some variables that aren’t obvious until you start (like number of people there.)
  • What kind of food and liquid will for certain be available (if any) and any potluck guidelines. (Asking people to bring an ingredients list or the label for the food is a good place to start.)

Give specifics when you know them:

There are ways to do this without weakening the emotional impact of many rituals.

I think back to a small festival I was at a few years ago. There were multiple rituals during that week, but two stick in my head because their approach was so different. It will help you to know that this was a camping festival, and at the time I was mostly able-bodied, but that camping took a lot out of me due to asthma (camping has mold triggers), and less great sleep and the general mechanical effort of camping was doing a number on my reserves over time. I was generally fine with standing for an hour, maybe two, but more than that, and I needed a chair or a suitable patch of ground.

One ritual did a workshop the day before the ritual to share these things and answer questions, with plenty of time between the workshop and the ritual so people could ask them privately if they preferred. It was going to be a fairly emotionally intense ritual. It would take a significant length of time. It would involve taking off a piece of clothing as part of the external commitment in the ritual (but it was up to us how much skin to expose.) And the ritual site was a fair walk away (about half a mile).

To help with some of these challenges, they arranged for some fairly simple access things, like running a shuttle from the central campground to the ritual site, and letting people know where to set their chairs up if they needed them for a long ritual (and then had someone available to move them to the second location used for the ritual quietly.)

But another ritual that same week wasn’t so clear. They began ritual, and a short way in, let people know that there were going to be two parts to the ritual, and it would be okay to leave out after the first part, if either you decided it wasn’t the right place for you to be, or you needed to for physical reasons. The first part was about 45 minutes. The whole ritual was closer to 3.

I left after the first part (with a smattering of other people – maybe a quarter or a third of the people there). However, I know I got some pushback from people (even people who know my general physical state pretty well) about doing so. (I also had some other issues with the way the ritual was framed, which didn’t help – but I was especially cranky about being thrust into the prospect of standing up in the ritual circle for 3 hours without warning and without much chance to move around.)

Warning is good. It helps people make good decisions for themselves rather than guessing based on shreds of (often inaccurate) information from their past experiences, conversations with others, or what this event was like in the past.

Make the information available early on.

I mentioned that I include information in our website about these issues. It’s also something I discuss briefly in our first meeting, and if that seems to be going well, also discuss when I’ll need more detailed information.

While I respect people’s needs for medical privacy, my tradition for small group work includes a range of practices that someone new to the religion or our style of practice may not anticipate – everything from extended meditation to dance and chant used in ritual to breathing exercises. When I take someone on as a student in the tradition, I make specific commitments to their well-being in classes and rituals they attend with the group (These things often are and should be challenging, and stretch them. But I’d rather not break them, and especially not accidentally!).

By knowing more about what the actual limits and diagnoses are, when relevant, I stand a much better chance of being able to ask the right questions about accommodation in advance or find alternate approaches. We build up to this: the initial information I need is to make sure we can have a comfortable space for our first conversations, and only ask for full details after a month or three, when someone is looking at becoming a student.

In large public groups, or open-invite ones, the conversations are a bit different, but starting early can make people feel more comfortable opening up with questions. Also, get your event notices out early. People with disabilities or health concerns often plan their time a fair bit ahead. They also may need extra time to arrange rides, or ask questions about what’s available. If you announce your public ritual two weeks before the event, many won’t bother even trying to come, because they’ll already have other things on their calendar.

Also, seriously consider multiple methods to get the information out. Don’t just announce it at face-to-face events, or on busy discussion forums where it can get lost in the conversation. Find a way to let people get annoucements of basic events simply and in multiple formats if at all possible.

Clearly communicate your own limits:

One of the things the Pagan community does that gets us in trouble (even though it often comes from a very well-meaning place) is that we try to make people happy and feel included, even if it’s really not a particularly good fit. People then try it out, are unable to get the support they want, and everyone ends up feeling frustrated, hurt, or worse. Or sometimes, we feel compelled to try and push through something to do something good for the community. Both of these are dangerous – to ourselves and to others.

If you have a hard limit, be clear about it.You don’t need to be defensive or apologetic, just clear about what it is, what’s negotiable, and what isn’t.

A couple of samples:

  • I have asthma and allergies. If I’m doing in-depth more intense ritual, teaching, or other things when I want my full abilities, I’m probably going to be really picky about where we do them, to avoid those triggers. I won’t accept a student who smokes if they’d need to smoke at any point during class or ritual because I can’t reliably cope with smoke being brought into my home even if they smoke outside.
  • I live in a tiny (400 square foot) house that has some mobility challenges (stairs in, and tight space in the bathroom) I have a cat, who is cranky around other animals. (even if my allergies allowed them, which they don’t). My group is a bad fit for anyone who’s currently using a wheelchair, a walker, or who has a service animal.  (I do expect to buy a home in a few years, and intend to look for better mobility access, but until then, there are limits.)
  • I’ve got my own exhaustion issues to deal with. I have limited space in my life for people who don’t show up, run persistently late, or don’t respect my time. (For people who do, I do my best to be available in some form.)

There are plenty more things I could list here, but you get the idea. There’s stuff I can offer in my home, and there’s stuff I can’t. There’s stuff I can be around if I need to be on top of my skills as a priestess and teacher, and there’s stuff I can’t be around if I’m going to do that. While I recognise that my limits might leave out some very lovely people, I do my best to point them in other possible directions that might be a good fit, and/or find other ways to interact that don’t hit my limits as significantly.

One place I see this causing particular problem is a group leader who’s already stretched to their limits for whatever reason – it could be health needs, but it could also be family, work, or other stresses – who feels pressured to take on a new student, rather than say “Not right now.” Some of this is pressure we put on ourselves, some of it is pressure from a person who wants to find a group, some of it may be perceived pressure from the community. But breaking ourselves down as teachers and group leaders doesn’t actually help people in the long run.

My basic take is that if I’m inviting someone into my home (metaphorically and physically) on a regular basis, they can either deal with the fact that I’m human and have limits, or they don’t need to be there. I want to do my deep religious work with people who understand and value commitment, but who also get the need for flexibility.

Be aware that changes may have an impact on others.

This isn’t to say that group members or students have a veto on their leader’s life choices. However, when you’re sharing your space with other people on a regular basis, and they’ve made a commitment to *being* in your space on a regular basis, some advance warning and discussion about what might help will make everything go more smoothly.

I have far more significant dog allergies than I do cat allergies. I used to live in the same home as the priestess and several other group members of the group I trained with. They’ve added additional dogs, right before and after I moved, as well as having a range of other visiting canines. The dogs are lovely – but my allergies are such that even if I medicate,  and even if they clean thoroughly, I’ll still have significant allergic reactions that strain my body. If I’m otherwise healthy, that’s okay – but right now, it’d be hard for me to visit without also planning several days of possible recovery time afterwards, which doesn’t fit very well with working at my day job, or doing other things in my life.

Do I blame them (or the dogs?). Nope. But I also hope they remember that the fact I’m not up there has much more to do with the environment than with them.

The same thing is true of ritual practices that start trending consistently in a new direction. The more that we can pause and talk about the new direction periodically and make sure that people are either still interested and committed, or can gently move forward in a way that doesn’t leave people feeling dragged into changes they’re not sure about.

As a community, we often make assumptions about why someone isn’t there.

I haven’t been at many public events this past year – Twin Cities Pagan Pride, two of our fundraisers, a couple of concerts, and that’s about it. A lot of that is due to health reasons: my own basic needs, the job that pays the bills, and my coven come first (not always in that order!). And yet, I’m pretty sure that at some point, someone from my local community is going to ask about it, in a way that implies I’m not as fully connected or committed to the community as they are.

And in some contexts, that’s true. I’ve got a different connection to the Pagan community locally than someone who’s able to go to the Sacred Paths Center on a regular basis for social gatherings. I help run one large event in the community, and I sometimes poke my head in at other events as time and energy allow. But I also chat with people in email, keep an eye on our local discussion lists, direct newbies looking for resources in the area to area groups, and do a whole lot of other stuff that I can do without pushing my health too hard.

If you’re in a position to help someone out, and you haven’t seen someone at a local event in a while, I’d also encourage you to get in touch, and see if a ride there would help out, or if there’s something else that you could do that would help them attend. (I know right now there are times when I’m not up for driving, especially if I don’t have a very good idea what the event will be like, but would go to something if I had a way of getting home again at the end I didn’t have to think about. This doesn’t always solve the problem, as there are still scheduling conflicts, energy conflicts, etc. but it’d help about half the time.)

Multiple models are a good thing

Especially in the Wiccan-derived parts of the community, I keep coming across this prevalent image of the high priestess (especially, but also group leadership in general) as always having it together. They come home from a job that both supports them in style and contributes deeply to the community. (or ideally, they don’t work at all, so they can devote all their time to the group). They whip up an elegant, tasty, healthy meal from scratch. They lay out everything in a perfectly clean and artfully decorated home. When everyone arrives, they are relaxed, fresh, and ready to have deep and wide-ranging conversations, and solve the world’s problems in a flick of the wand. When everyone’s done, they graciously hang out talking until the last person is ready to leave, and then whisk the dishes and other tidying away, go to bed, and wake up fully refreshed for another creative, magical, witchy day.

Erm. Yeah. Right. In many of our fantasies.

The reality is that many of us are passionate about jobs that do demand time and energy outside the standard workday, at least sometimes. Others deliberately work in jobs that don’t do this – but deal with the resulting lower pay or benefits than they might otherwise have. Many of us come home a mere hour or so before other people arrive for discussion, class, or ritual, which is about enough time to do a last minute tidy, stick something in the oven, and take a deep breath.

All of this is actually just fine – but it can take a tremendous amount of attention to be on top of everything, so that if work has an unusual demand, or you were out talking to a student having a hard time at a coffee shop the night before, you don’t have to scramble to do a major cleaning or make a significant part of the meal on the spot.

Even more than that, though, we need to publicly recognise that there are many ways to contribute to our Pagan community. Some people are driven or called to be teachers and group leaders. But there is also a need for people who show up and help make everything work smoothly. Who offer practical skills. Who plan less exciting parts of the events, like coordinating potluck, or simply showing up with a dish that has to go in the oven for a bit and then everyone can eat. Who reliably offer to help clean, who do the dishes after the event, or whatever else is comfortable and actually useful to the hostess or host. Who host themselves, so the people teaching can focus on that. Who offer or coordinate rides. Who create Pagan-friendly social gatherings and sustain them. Who do any number of other things I am doubtless forgetting right now.

Some ideas in the community are soul-destroying:

Concepts like the idea that we choose the bodies and lives we come into in detail, so that whatever pain or challenge or illness we have now was either a choice (in some models) or a payback for misdeeds in a past life. Neither of these actually serve us well in the present, and they can create a lot of distrust and discomfort in community settings. There’s also the idea that we can fix anything, if we just wish/want/protect ourselves from negativity hard enough. I think this is also utter nonsense. But all of these could be vast posts of their own, so let’s move onto the more useful bits.

And things we already benefit from:

We dwell in a polytheistic worldview

(Most of us, anyway.) This means that those multiple models are actually right before us, often. There is honor and benefit in crafting, in weaving people and intentions together. There is value in teaching, in leading closer to the knowledge of the Gods or the Craft or whatever other topic. There is honor in holding a sacredness in the home and in our food. It’s our own human nature to develop tunnel vision, but if we back up a few steps, we can often find a number of models of opportunity.

Our models also include gods and goddesses who have disabilities or substantial limits, who yet thrive.  Are their lives perfect? Nope, but generally neither are the lives of any other God or Goddess in the mythology in that case. The multiplicity of choice, however, can be very powerful, if we incorporate it.

We have tools to build self-awareness

Taught thoroughly, common practices for many paths like centering, grounding, shielding, and meditation can give us a way to work to build self-awareness. It’s also a great use for divination tools of all kinds, when we ask meaningful questions. Our rituals and ritual cycles can give us ways to keep looping back and checking in about different common topics. And when we work with other people regularly, those people can give us feedback on things we might not have noticed ourselves yet.

Most importantly, being self-aware gives us a chance to head off the worst of slow-building issues sooner than later, or to realise that something’s really going wrong. (I caught the “There’s something really wrong here” within a month, and it’d have been faster except that I had flu at the beginning of the month, and already expected to feel pretty lousy for a few weeks.)

Our religious practices give us experience in facing the unknown:

In dealing with my own health issues, this year, I keep getting the comment that I’m dealing with this with unusual grace. This is partly a choice – more on that in a second – but it’s also, I realise, because I have experience (through working in an initiatory religious witchcraft tradition) in going into experiences I know will change me, but not how, and coming out the other side. I’ve done that three times formally now (well, four, counting my dedication), with many more smaller ones. And I know from all those experiences that while I can’t predict how things will shake out in the long-term, that keeping my eye on my values and commitments and what I most desire helps keep me pointed the right direction, and helps me come out the other side even more of the kind of person I want to be.

We have tools to shape ourselves and our lives:

By this I don’t mean “Magic makes everything better, and illness go away”. That’s unrealistic in the extreme. But we *can* use the tools we have to help us continue to build the kind of person we want to be in dealing with hard times in our lives. Do we do it complaining every step of the way, or do we find ways to do it with as much grace and good humor as we can? Do we regret the things we can’t do, or do we build a vibrant and creative life from the things we can?

I use the tools of my religion to help me deal with the challenges in a way that’s consistent with my values, and my hopes for myself. It’s certainly not perfect, and I definitely have my moments of ranting and raving and whining – but overall, I think I’m much better off for having and using those tools.

Our traditions encourage us to learn and question authority:

I value and honor the education and work that the doctors and nurses I’ve been seeing have put in. I wouldn’t be seeing them if I didn’t. But I equally don’t see them as perfect beings. They know some things I don’t – but I know some things *they* don’t, like what’s normal for my body. This enabled me to push through and insist on treatment that is, in fact, helping, even though I’m not all better right now. A lot of our society tells us not to question at that point, and that’s not always the helpful thing.

Also related: my Craft work has taught me how to talk about things I can’t find the right words for immediately, and make it work out somehow, when talking to people of good will. This is immensely useful in dealing with medical stuff that’s eating your focus and ability to be as articulate as you’d like. (The major journalling habit I started as part of my early Craft training has been hugely helpful, too in tracking longer-term patterns and slides in health.)


The good news is that there’s a lot we’re already benefiting from, both as a community (or collection of communities) and as individuals. The bad news is that there’s still a good way to go, especially on some of the more pragmatic and practical issues. I hope, however, by laying out some of these questions and ideas, people can adopt at least one or two to focus on or encourage more widely in their little bit of the broader community, and that people coming into this collection of communities will have an idea of what they may need to do some educating and asking around.

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