Paganism and (Dis)ableism

Brits tend to call it ‘disablism’, Americans ‘ableism’, but it’s the same thing. (When it comes to disability terminology, we’re very much two nations divided by a common language.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about disablism in Paganism recently. I see other people affirmed in Paganism, encouraged to be themselves (for example, if they’re gay/lesbian/bisexual/etc, or gender-variant, or a woman, or an older person, or a mother…). I know Paganism isn’t perfect on these things, by any means, but I see people making an effort. And then I look for the same affirmation for who I am. And get told how (and why) to fix myself – how to behave like I don’t have Aspergers; or why I should stay quiet about all the London moots that are upstairs; or why I shouldn’t talk about activism on Facebook; or how to harm myself trying to access rituals that are inaccessible or badly-planned for people like me; or how to act and appear so that my differently-wired brain isn’t obvious at first glance; or why my views on the government are too negative… And I don’t want to do any of these things, and I won’t. But society keeps saying I ‘should’.

And because I have opinions – because I won’t stay quiet – because I shout and stomp my feet and demand access and rights for myself and my disabled brothers and sisters – I’m an embarrassment. There’s no affirmation of who I am. Just teaching me how to be more ‘normal’. Well, bollocks to that.

Other people meet different forms of disablism in the Pagan movement (since everyone is different). Aine Llewellyn has been talking about discriminatory language, especially about people with mental health problems, and how it can exclude people. Caelesti is talking today about how some disabled people are considered to be ‘more spiritual’ than others, and why this is objectification of disabled people. (It’s also a direct inheritance from Christianity and its gracisosi theology, just as many Pagan attitudes are inherited from Christianity, though we often don’t know it.)  I know people who have been told they have to be fully healed before they can be ‘really’ spiritual, and many others who are subjected to healing that they haven’t consented to, and are physically or mentally harmed as a result. All these attitudes and actions are about institutional disablism in our community.

Furthermore, everyone has an opinion on disability. LGBT people would never put up with being ‘taught’ about LGBT issues by straight people. Yet I’m told what disability means all the time, by people with no real interest in listening to what I know and have experienced. (Tell them I’ve done an MA in Disability Studies? Yeah, that’ll go down well…) People who don’t know about the social model of disability, or the social construction of ‘health’, or emancipatory research methods, or any of the other things I’ve spent years studying, are happy to tell me how wrong I am to campaign, or to complain, or to talk about what I’ve experienced.

Don’t get me wrong. Institutional disablism can be found everywhere – not just in Paganism. My PhD is on disability and Christianity, and they’re no better – probably slightly worse, in fact, as they’ve had 2000 years to embed disablism into everything they do: every hymn they sing, every sacrament they celebrate… But, as I’ve said many times before, I hoped Paganism would be better. It’s generally so good at at least trying to affirm everyone. But I’m consistently disappointed by Paganism on this subject – and by Pagans.

I don’t want to be fixed. I also don’t want to be told how ‘normal’ I am. I want to be celebrated, as myself, a beautiful person who can be proud of all aspects of who and what I am. And a wonderful example of the diversity of humanity and of nature. And, when things are bad, because I’m facing discrimination or oppression or abuse (which happens a lot as a result of my disability), or simply because society can’t make room for my differences, I want to be taken seriously. I want my opinions to be listened to. I want to be able to talk about my campaigning without rolled eyes. I want the leaders of the upstairs moots to say more than “Sorry, can’t help you.” And I want to be allowed to be different, even if that means some work on the part of others. I deserve all these things.

But because institutional disablism is rife in the Pagan community, as it is throughout society, I doubt any of that will happen anytime soon.

Nonetheless, I will continue to aim to move within the flow of the Xartus, the wind of creativity and right action that blows through the branches of the World Tree — to work for justice and to attempt to strengthen community. What else can I do?

If you’d like some more reading (and listening) on disability and Paganism by me, there’s a post I wrote about disability on my old blog, and you can listen to an episode of the Inciting a Riot podcast on which I was interviewed about religions and disability. (Back before I was sure I was a Pagan, if you can believe that!)

Some other relevant posts going around the blogosphere at the moment:

Caelisti’s roundup of Pagan blog posts discussing disability at the moment
Veggiewolf talking about upholding Ma’at despite poor health (under circumstances that I would say exemplify the extreme individualism that creates disability, in the social sense of the term)

And some reading on disability studies concepts, if anyone’s interested:
The social model of disability:
Interesting report on hidden disabilities
A fascinating report on many of the barriers faced by disabled and Deaf people in London – to transport, housing, support, access to public buildings, and general discrimination.

Here are some quotes from the ‘general discrimination’ section of the above report – people’s experiences of disability discrimination in London:

‘Being told to get off the bus by two mothers with prams’
‘People letting their dog bite me because I was in a wheelchair’
‘As I am unable to read due to my dyslexia, I am often humiliated in front of colleagues, friends and clients. I’ve been called: ‘dim’, ‘lazy’ and attention seeking’
‘In shops and at train stations I have faced verbal abuse. There is a lack of help/support given when asking advice as well as patronising behaviour’
‘I’ve been called a cripple by members of the public. I’ve also had bricks thrown through my windows by local youths because they know I can’t chase them’
‘I was told once I had the qualifications for a job, but that I looked ‘too blind’ so they would not employ me’
‘Other car users, parking disputes because I need more space to get my wheelchair in and out of the car… Some people try to push my wheelchair without asking my permission. Access disputes occur when trying to shop or when a disabled toilet has been misused as a storage room’
‘Discrimination against HIV can be subtle, it can be rumour and innuendo which leads to exclusion. HIV does not cause me to be disabled. It is other people’s attitudes towards me because I have HIV which caused the discrimination and is the same as being disabled’
‘Making fun of sign language and testing my hearing behind my back’
‘Regularly in shops and supermarkets. I hand over my credit card and it is usually given to whoever happens to be with me to sign!’
‘I went out into the hall, expecting transport to take me to the day centre. I saw the front door of [my neighbour’s] house was open for 20 minutes and closed it… Her partner had to let her back in to her flat. He shrieked at me ‘You f****** crippled bitch!”
‘Endless examples. I have been spat at; attempts have been made to push me out of my wheelchair; I have been physically abused; taunted and told I should not be with people in a railway carriage’
‘Been hit while out in a wheelchair; been spat at – both for no reason, I had not even looked at them’
‘It’s largely about attitudes for me. People taking me for a mug, making me feel stupid or laughing at me’
‘I have been told by someone I accidentally bumped into that I should have been killed at birth’
‘Ignorance of Deaf issues, what it means to be deaf, communication issues, patronising attitudes’
‘Told I had to dress in a way which was physically painful to keep a job’

19 thoughts on “Paganism and (Dis)ableism

  1. Pingback: Paganism and (Dis)ableism | Volkhvy

  2. I’m liking this because of your ‘bollocks to that!’ Attitude.
    I know we’ve had a discussion on this before, but as a pagan who volunteered to push your wheelchair around (when you asked for it) I can honestly say it was no trouble at all. I’m frankly appalled by the ‘sorry, we can’t help you approach’, I don’t specifically blame London moots as this problem can be seen elsewhere, but I am sorry to see you are having more exposure to that mentality.
    As for ‘fixing you’, definitely sod that! You are the way you are, you have your disabilities, autism, I have my eczema, Pipes has her arthritis and thick blood and insomnia…. most single minded pagans I have met are DESPERATE for attention or wanting to be ‘chosen’ or want to feel superior (which is ridiculous because how can you be ‘The keeper of secret knowledge, all hail to you’ if you are doing to be different on purpose because of your own insecurities? Its a vicious cycle) or basically want a clique of like minded people (at this point I’d have walked out) for ego masturbation.
    My point is, those of us who have obvious examples of our physical and mental and psychological differences and are actively aware of them are in fact more in tune with ourselves and our limitations (I used to love swimming, but nowadays the chlorine makes my skin all red and tight) so I like swimming in the sea when I can instead (much more fun). I’m not saying all people who have no obvious disability or conditions or whatever the word is are all against the disabled as everyone had their differences, but it does piss me off when there are those who ‘can’ see those who ‘can’t’ as an obstacle, not as a Human Being.

    • I’m certainly not saying everyone is against disabled people. I’m angry, so I’m probably generalizing more than I should/could be. But sometimes these things just come out, after being suppressed for a long time, and you explode. I’m sure you know what that’s like!

      There’s a difference between interdependence and discrimination. Someone volunteering to push my wheelchair when I need it is lovely (as long as they inform me in advance rather than grabbing me and maybe hurting me in the process!) But someone spitting on a wheelchair user (as in the examples at the end of the post) – well, you can see the difference. We all need community, interdependence, and mutual support. But when some people are treated the way disabled people are in our society, then the dependency narrative has been warped out of shaped, to the point that it becomes “fuck those fucking scroungers – she’s in a wheelchair, she must be living off the state, let’s push her out of the wheelchair and teach her a lesson.” Instead, maybe an *interdependency* narrative is what we need. We are all dependent on each other and our community, and some are a bit more dependent, and that’s OK. Unfortunately, in today’s society, that’s an ideal that is a long way from being realised. That’s what ‘disability’ is – when prejudice and oppression mean that someone with general limitations becomes truly disabled by them – and by society.

  3. Pingback: Paganism & Disability Links | The Lefthander's Path

  4. Pingback: Paganism and (Dis)ableism | Home-Canned Sun

  5. We urgently need to just let go of the illusion of normality in the wider community, Pagan and beyond. What we have, are people. Different people have different issues and needs. It should be all of our jobs to listen to what those needs are and do whatever can be done to accommodate that, cooperatively between us. We judge people all too often based on utility and convenience – frequently an issue around mental health, too, all those people who wont’ ‘walk on eggshells’ when asked to avoid triggering behavior…This is going to take nothing short of full-on cultural revolution. Keep talking, keep educating the rest of us, because there are people listening to you.

    • Thanks, Nimue :) I totally agree that a large part of the answer is getting rid of what disability studies calls the ‘normalcy paradigm’ – the (false) concept that we should all be aiming for ‘normal’, and that ‘perfect health’ is even possible and should be everyone’s goal.

      • That whole mindset just alienates people who do not have any options, which adds to the horrible. The room to be as comfortable as you can be with what life has dealt, is so much more useful, and the bandwidth for ‘normal’ is frighteningly narrow. It’s also often inherently male. Bleeding every month isn’t part of ‘normal’, pregnancy isn’t normal, the menopause isn’t normal…I did some psychology stuff some years back, and realised we tend to celebrate traits perceived as masculine and pathologise feminine traits… so many soap boxes available, so much that is awry and needs fixing…

  6. Keep speaking up and shouting out please. I am learning a great deal more about these issues from you because of your openness even though we’ve not yet met face to face. Thank you

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