Are we that Clueless about Disability?
So is it true that Pagan communities are less disability-friendly than other religious communities? I think that’s a really hard question to answer, especially considering how you can debate what “pagan” or “disability” even means. An Asatruar might insist they are not Pagan, a Deaf person may insist they are not disabled, regardless of how others may view them.
Progressive/liberal movements also often don’t “get” disability, which likewise influences progressive-oriented Pagan and alternative spiritual groups. It’s a very mixed bag in everything from feminism, racial and economic justice groups, GLBT groups etc. One thing I can say across the board, whether dealing with Pagan groups or lefty activist groups, is it depends on the individuals in the group, and what they are aware of and advocating for. The disabilities that they have, or have encountered in their personal lives are key. Then disability groups themselves vary widely in what other “isms” and minority concerns they include, and what disability issues they “get” or don’t. The disability rights and Deaf movements in the U.S. started on college campuses, among relatively privileged activists, the movements still reflect those origins, along with mostly white middle/upper-class parents, family members and professionals.
That said, I’ll share some of my own experiences and observations- both good and bad about attitudes toward disability I’ve encountered among Pagans. A big positive for myself as an autistic person, is that Pagan communities tend to very accepting of eccentric behavior. There may be debates about exactly what kinds, or how far such behavior, dress and appearance should go, but in general, having quirky mannerisms is more tolerated. I pretty much bring up autism as it comes up and seems relevant, but otherwise I seem to get along pretty well with Pagans without mentioning a label. When it does come up, I find people are usually pretty accepting- often people will feel as if they understand me better, and they often mention autistic traits they notice in others, (or themselves) or family members/friends who have been diagnosed.
Often when trying to get disability services I have more trouble getting people to understand autism as a disability, especially since I am fully verbal, live independently etc. But on the other hand, I seem to have an easier time with social acceptance- I think because people don’t usually immediately put me into a “disability box” based on use of a wheelchair or other such visible signals. That gives me the freedom to explain it when it feels comfortable, appropriate and relevant. In sociological terms, I am able to manage the “stigma” surrounding my disabled identity, whereas others with more overt disabilities get hit with more of the brutal impact of disability prejudice- the kind of crap I’ve managed to mostly avoid since high school. I have noticed, interestingly that people do seem to have a stronger, more uncomfortable reaction when I mention the epilepsy than the autism. Hence why I don’t mention it much.
No, most of the cluelessness about disability hasn’t been directed towards me, it’s been to other people. Frankly there are plenty of times when I haven’t thought about accessibility until I encountered it through the eyes of a friend.
Once I invited a friend to Imbolc ritual. The leader of the group was encouraging us to invite friends and family so they could get the chance to learn about our religion. My friend did enjoy the event, but it was on the third floor of a decrepit building and she had bad knees, so it was difficult for her to climb all the stairs. Later I brought this up to my teacher, and asked what we would do if a wheelchair user wanted to attend an event. His reply: “Oh I’m sure his or her fellow students would be happy to carry him up the stairs”. Right, because that would be so dignified. Not to mention the assumption of ability to carry the person, and the safety issues involved. Later on, after I left this group (for many reasons) the teacher bought a house, and again placed the temple on the second floor of the house. Another group I was involved with met at a metaphysical bookstore on the second floor. Someone e-mailed us that they were interested in coming, and mentioned that they used a wheelchair. I explained to them the situation, but told them I would try to move the discussion to an accessible location. But the other two people would hear none of it. Seriously. In retrospect, I should’ve e-mailed the person and said that I would be happy to meet with them somewhere accessible. If that situation arises again, that’s what I’ll do.
I am going to give props though, to the folks involved in Pagan Pride and Paganicon. They have been really awesome about trying make sure those events are accessible to people of varying abilities and to the public transit system and for that I am thankful. There are some kinds of accessibility that harder to deal with in rural settings and since many groups meet in homes those also tend to be less accessible. I think in general, though as we move toward larger more public events we will have more options for accessibility.
Entry filed under: Autism/Asperger's, Celtic/Druid, Ethics, Pagan Communities. Tags: autism, disability rights, epilepsy, handicap accessibility, pagan blog project, pagan community, paganicon, sociology, stigma, Twin Cities.