How to Get Me to Avoid Your Pagan Festival

I’m singling out one group here, which is really unfair, but on the other hand, they’ve been putting on Pagan events for decades and really ought to know better. In any case, the points herein should apply to any large-scale Pagan event.

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” — Helen Keller
“Recognize that the other person is you.” — Buddhist proverb

One of the things that drew me to Paganism was the acceptance and welcome I found there – not just for me, but for lots of people who feel “different” in more conventional settings.

These days, I’m the one feeling different. Thanks to an accident of heredity, I’ve been handed an incurable physical disability that began in my 40s and is getting worse each year. I get to deal with this in every part of my life, but right now I’m concerned about the Pagan part.

A friend recently invited me to attend a Pagan event with her – Twilight Covening, a long-weekend intensive put on by the EarthSpirit folks in Massachusetts. I know some people who’ve gone and found it valuable, so I was interested enough to check out the Web site. Here are some quotes from the descriptions of available activities:

  • For a clan (weekend intensive) focused on energy work: “Participants should be able to stand comfortably for at least half an hour.”
  • For a clan on ritual and energy work: “Please do not sign up for this clan if you have … mobility challenges.”
  • For a clan on singing and chant: “We will do some moderate hiking.”
  • For a clan that is building an oven and baking bread to build a connection with Earth and Water: “People with health, mobility or physical touch issues should not apply for this clan.”

You get the picture. After exploring the site, I came away with a strong feeling that I was not welcome, and told my friend I wouldn’t be going.

As the Pagan community grows and its leaders age, we ARE going to have more people among us with disabilities. There may, indeed, be more than we think already – I know more than one Pagan with disabilities who simply stays away from community events because he or she does not feel welcome. That makes me sad – and, because it’s now my problem as well, it makes me angry.

What I want to do is to turn my negative experience into a positive one. I’d like to propose a few standards for inclusion.

If you are putting on an event – a ritual in your home, a public workshop, a larger event – pay attention to what physical abilities are needed to participate.

Next, consider whether there are alternatives to your plans that would be more inclusive.

  • Is it possible to move the event to a wheelchair-accessible space?
  • Can those who prefer not to go on the hike – for any reason, not just physical ability – do something equally meaningful as an alternative?
  • How can your warrior workshop include the person who has a warrior’s soul in a less-than-agile body?
  • Can the space be arranged so the leaders’ mouths are visible to those who need to lip-read?
  • Who in your community might be available to provide a ride?
  • Is there a space available that’s on a public transit route?

For extra credit, consider how your event can help those with imperfect bodies (that is, all of us) build connections between physical and spiritual worlds, so that ALL participants leave feeling they have been encouraged and welcomed.

Finally, communicate in an inclusive way. How much different would my experience have been if the Twilight Covening people had indicated which clans would be best and most comfortable for people with mobility issues?

For smaller community events, of course there need to be compromises. Many of us do not have wheelchair-accessible homes, including me (and yes, that’s going to be a problem eventually). Be as clear as you can about what is and is not available, and offer to work with individual participants to find ways around barriers.

I know many leaders do these things as a matter of course. They make sure there’s a suitable chair or parking space for a mobility- challenged participant. They provide a guiding arm to a blind Pagan, or make sure someone helps the hard-of-hearing person understand the ritual. 

Most of all, they treat EVERY Pagan as a whole and worthwhile person. This article ends with my gratitude to them, and my own resolve to remember these lessons in my community work.

What’s this all about?

Hephaestus at the forge

A Greek depiction of Hephaestus (Vulcan) at his forge.

I am a Pagan — that is, someone who believes in the holiness of nature and draws inspiration from pre-Christian religions. I am also, increasingly, someone with a disability, thanks to a hereditary condition called lipedema. (To learn more about this, visit my other blog, Big Leg Woman.)

I’m starting this blog as a way to explore the Pagan community’s engagement (or non-engagement) with its disabled members, and to advocate for Paganisms that are inclusive and welcoming to differing levels of physical ability.

Vulcan is the Roman god of the forge, and in legend was said to have a broken leg that had never healed correctly. (His Greek counterpart, Hephaestus, was said to have a clubfoot.) Despite his disability, he was a powerful deity, governing important matters such as the creation of everything metal (swords, ploughshares, jewelry) and the destructive power of fire. I choose to call this site by his name in part to invoke the power of transformation that the smith performs — in this case, transforming something burdensome (a disability) into something powerful and beautiful (the chance to advocate for a better and stronger Pagan community).

But the fire’s part of it, too. I get angry when I see Pagans treat each other thoughtlessly, or when I see anyone being treated as less than a whole person. So while I cherish the high road, it is possible that I will not always be the High Priestess of Nice.

I chose the name “Vulcan’s Sister” as a reference to Virginia Woolf’s fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, who had the same imagination and talents as her brother William, but lacked his opportunities to succeed. Vulcan, a disabled man, is able through his powerful skills and a bit of blackmail to take his place among the gods and even marry the goddess of love. Women with disabilities are not discussed in history or mythology, and even today women with disabilities experience discrimination and sometimes (sadly) abuse.