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Do We Act Justly? Disability, Mental Illness and Vulnerability

In an effort to be more accessible to those with reading and communication difficulties, there is an easy-read version of this article (for those with learning difficulties and similar issues) below the main post.

Disabled people are routinely treated as a ‘vulnerable’ group, rather than as a marginalized one. But what if we were included under a social justice banner instead?

Cailleach Bheur by Lindowyn. http://lindowyn-stock.deviantart.com/art/Cailleach-Bheur-IV-71824613

Cailleach Bheur by Lindowyn

The Cailleach plants her staff in the ground. This is the line.

I used to go regularly to an arts festival that had a big focus on social justice – and didn’t include disability in that approach. Every minority group’s needs were treated as a justice issue except ours. Instead, we were considered a vulnerable group, rather than one with a right to equal access. We had ‘special needs’, and ‘special treatment’ was required. Unsurprisingly, this led to much resentment among the people who had to make the ‘special arrangements’. Requests for better access were met with animosity, assertions that I didn’t know what my own needs were, and even verbal abuse.

Vulnerability is an easy concept to use when thinking about disabled people. Government representatives talk about ‘vulnerable people’ all the time. They rarely talk about how they are the ones who’ve made us vulnerable, though. They focus not on systemic injustice, but on individuals.

Yet the system is the problem. In the UK, a disabled person is twice as likely to be living in poverty as a non-disabled person. Hate crime against disabled people in the UK has tripled in the past decade, and 58% of disabled people in London have experienced aggression or violence linked to their impairment or to being disabled. These two situations alone have made disabled people in the UK vulnerable — and there are many more ways in which the system creates vulnerability for disabled and long-term ill people.

But we are not vulnerable outside of a society that makes us so.

Justice, not Vulnerability: The Social Model of Disability

There is another way to think about disability and accessibility, though. You may have set up your festival, or your ritual, or your meeting, purely for non-disabled people. You may not realise that this is the case. That’s because of non-disabled privilege. And that’s OK — all non-disabled people have this privilege (as can disabled people, depending on the situation). The key is to work on breaking down the walls we’ve created — in our minds, and in our meetings.

If you have to make special arrangements after the fact, you didn’t start by thinking about access for all. You thought of us as vulnerable people who need help, not as equal people whom you forgot about when designing your festival, or ritual, or meeting.

And that’s a problem for all of us who want to live in a society where there is equity and justice for all.

The social model of disability says that we are made more disabled, made vulnerable, by societies that are created for non-disabled people and that don’t want to change to include us.

Who Knows Best? Disabled People (& those with Mental Health Problems) as Children

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) has a policy against people with certain mental health problems being involved in their distance-learning course. They have good reasons for this, which they outline along with the policy. The wording of the policy is a little unclear, so that a reader can’t be sure if people in this situation are unwelcome, or simply advised not to take part. Nonetheless, they are certainly strongly encouraged not to follow the course. At the OBOD website, the policy statement is: “Many people go through difficult times in their life, and the course can be very helpful and supportive at such times. But you should not enrol on the course if you have ever been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia or a psychotic condition.” The website goes on to explain that the problem relates to the distance learning nature of the course. Note the wording, “if you have ever been diagnosed with” such a condition. People have told me of opening the first booklet in the course, to find a piece of paper that states that those diagnosed with a mental health problem should not take part and that they will receive a refund for the course.

Full disclosure: I am following the OBOD course, and I was once diagnosed with the kinds of mental health problems that mean I shouldn’t be following it. Officially, I’m not allowed to take the course. Still, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done, for my spiritual, emotional and practical life.

Good reasons for this policy do not prevent it from being potential discrimination.

This because the policy excludes an entire group of people, rather than respecting the autonomous right of every person to make sensible decisions. Nor does it attempt to alter the wider social conditions that could make people vulnerable in combination with this course. It can be argued that the policy is medicalised, individualistic, could be seen as discriminatory, and involves what Brits call disablism and Americans call ableism. It may even be against equality law in the UK, though that would need to be tested in the courts.

Furthermore, the policy sets up a very clear ‘us and them’ dichotomy. There is a fine line between the anxiety and depression that many of us experience (1 in 4 of us, in fact) and the more severe mental health issues that others experience. It is not uncommon for someone to have one experience of psychosis and never experience it again. I am one of those not-uncommon people. (I’m quite nervous of revealing this, but I’m more committed to my activism and to anti-discrimination education than I am to my status as an OBOD Ovate-in-training, as much as I love my druidry.) You could be the next person to have an episode of psychosis and recover fully. Or not to recover entirely, but to remain capable of making your own decisions. An old diagnosis may have been wrong, or it may become a thing of long ago for you, a past experience that no longer affects your life. Now imagine that there’s a policy that takes away your agency based on a diagnosis that can never be erased from your record. How do you feel?

The problem here is that discourses of vulnerability have been allowed to rule the day. How will people with mental illness be able to judge if practices are making them ill? We must look after them (and protect ourselves). We must make special arrangements – which, in this case, involves exclusion. Disabled people[1] here are represented as children, with no ability to self-care, to judge their own states of health and illness, no right to know themselves. This is the way society represents us, so it’s no great surprise to find a Pagan group thinking of us this way. But we are the only people who live with our impairments or conditions. We are the people who know what we can manage and what help or access changes we need.

They are certainly not the only Pagan organisation with such a policy, or a similar one. Yvonne Aburrow recently wrote about Wiccan covens and people with mental health problems. There are other magical training courses with similar bans, or which demand full details of any health difficulties so that they can make decisions on behalf of attenders. This attitude to mental illness and disability recurs throughout the Pagan community.

The OBOD policy hangs over me, a gatekeeper with a flaming sword. You should not be here.

The Magic Of Words and Concepts

Wouldn’t it be a magical thing to use words in a way that empowers people, rather than excludes them?

Wouldn’t it be a powerfully sacred thing to give people back a little of the autonomy that society has taken from them?

There are alternative approaches that could apply here, that work along discourses of equity and justice, not vulnerability. The order could instead consider the way their course is structured, how the policy is written, and how they are thinking of disabled people. People could be considered for the course on a case-by-case basis — perhaps via a Mental Health Officer with some expertise in the area. Maybe even someone with personal experience of mental health difficulties, to ensure that such people have a voice in the Order and in its policies.

But instead, OBOD’s policies sustain the discourse of vulnerability. Disabled people, people with mental health problems, are here seen as children, needing protection rather than justice. The words of power used in the policy reflect this.

Mutual Discourses of Helplessness

“There’s nothing we can do.” “You need to tell us what to do.” “It’s too expensive.” “It would be too difficult.” The overwhelming response, when Pagan groups are asked to become more accessible, is one of helplessness in the face of a concept of vulnerability. Their helplessness plus our (constructed) vulnerability can sometimes make for mutual resentment. This conflict does not promote the peace that many Pagan traditions seek.

But many of us want to work with you to help to change this image of vulnerability. To help create the most accessible environments and policies that we can. I’m the accessibility advisor for Druid Camp, a Pagan summer event in a field in south-west England. Before I started working with them, I never thought I’d be able to join in with a camping holiday in a field. I never thought I’d be able to participate fully and freely in ritual. I never imagined I could walk a fire labyrinth or sleep on the ground for five days or feel truly part of something so magical and community-based. All things are possible when we all engage with systemic exclusion and inclusion – and there are those of us who want to help to make all things possible.

Which brings us to…

Levelling the Playing Field

Do you believe in equity and justice for ALL?

Because if you do, you need to enshrine that in your practices, and in the policies of your groups towards disabled people.

Believing in social justice is good. It also means nothing — if we don’t live it out.

If you run rituals, how much do you consider the needs of disabled people attending them? You may think you don’t have the resources to make ‘special arrangements’. But you could think creatively around this. A festival in a field or a ritual in the woods can be made more accessible. (Complete accessibility for absolutely everyone is not always needed.)

If you hold a big event, do you check it’s in a location where there are hearing aid loops, and do you ensure that all your speakers are using microphones, so that hard-of-hearing and deaf people can follow along? If you run a moot, do you meet at the top floor of a pub because it’s convenient (for some of you)? Sometimes people tell me, “We don’t need to change our venue. No wheelchair users come to our moot.” Of course they don’t. It’s upstairs.

Do you encourage hugging, loud noise, or spontaneous ritual structuring? If so, have you checked with your disabled members — such as those with Asperger’s or anxiety — about how they feel about this? A simple addition to an announcement in ritual could be: “Now we’ll hug (if we want to!)” There can be a simple whisper to someone about what the ritual will involve. These little alterations can really help to empower people to make the best choices for them. They can help to better include non-disabled people as well as disabled people.

Have you talked with disabled people’s groups about your event’s access? Have you taken up offers of help from, for example, Pagan disability equality trainers[2]? Have you reflexively told Deaf Pagans that sign language is too expensive to organise, without thinking creatively about your options – like offering free tickets to signers and working with Deaf Pagan groups?

Have you talked with user-led mental health groups about how your mental health policy approaches those with psychiatric disabilities? Have you engaged with members of the survivor movement, or the neurodiversity movement, or even the anti-psychiatry movement, to get another perspective on your policies about mental health and illness? You may find there are already people in your groups who are part of these interesting movements. These movements are part of social justice culture, of the same anti-establishment cultures that many Pagan groups emerge from. You may find you have much in common with them and their aims.

If you have disability policies, how much do they create vulnerability, rather than equality?

If you talk about disability inclusion as involving ‘special arrangements’, you may not have got it yet. You may not be seeing the hilly playing field that you created (or chose to use). The hilly field that we can level out for all if we just get creative. If we think about equality, not vulnerability.

We who talk and pray about justice – do we act justly?

The Cailleach plants her staff in the ground. This is the line.

Gods and Radicals contacted OBOD to ask for a statement on the policy, to give them the right of reply to this article. You can read their full clarification statement on mental health access here.

Easy-Read Version of the article

Disabled people are often treated like people who need help. It might be better if they were treated like equal people.

I used to go to a festival where they tried to give special treatment to disabled people. This made people unhappy when they thought they had to make special efforts for the disabled people. Instead they could have thought about equality. They could have looked at how they set up the festival. It was set up for people who are not disabled.

Disabled people are made vulnerable by society. For example, hate crime against disabled people makes us more vulnerable.

An equal society includes everyone. It doesn’t have to make special arrangements, because it is already accessible for all. For example, Pagan groups can start by thinking about whether their event is accessible to disabled people. They can do this right from the beginning of their planning for the event.

One Druid order (OBOD) tells people not to take part in a course if they have some types of mental health problems. This might be against the law. It shuts people out. It might be better to trust people to know how well or ill they are.

Sometimes Pagan groups feel helpless when they don’t know how to include disabled people. But there is lots of information online. There are usually people willing to help.

Groups should think about equality. They should not think about looking after people. Equality means doing practical things to include people.

Fairness is important to Pagans. We have gods of justice like the Cailleach. Do Pagans act fairly? Or do they just talk about fairness without doing it?

References

[1] People with mental illnesses are generally considered disabled under the Equality Act in the UK. (2010). Equality Act 2010 (c.15). London: HMSO. See https://www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance .

[2] I offer disability equality training on a sliding scale, and free to any small Pagan group or independent Pagan festival that is interested. It can happen over Skype if you’re far away from me. You can contact me through my website, here.

Photo credit: Cailleach Bheur by Lindowyn. Creative Commons licence.

34 Comments »

  1. I think my schizophrenic husband, who is a thoughtful, intelligent, and spiritually powerful man who takes his medication regularly and consults his psychiatrist regularly, and as a result is probably more mentally stable than I am, would be disheartened to know that OBOD doesn’t want him to be a Druid. Good thing he’s a Witch! Great article. Important work you’re doing here. Thank you for doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing so clearly and passionately about this issue, and for modelling accessibility with the easy read version of your article.

    Even as a disabled person (as you point out), who has also been a diversity and equality trainer, it is too easy for me to forget about accessibility beyond mobility impairments.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bipolar though I was only diagnosed a several years after being initiated, now have health and mobility issues, use a walker outside. But so far if I am careful, I can still do full ceremony and I turn seventy at the end of this year. Like ever other period of my life it is a matter of learning how to adapt and focusing on what I can do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo Naomi Jacobs for raising this, and in such a profoundly positive and thoughtful manner. Your post exemplifies the constructive approach you call on others, organisations and individuals, to make.

    Although my disability is physical, not mental, it is just as invisible as a ‘mental illness’ (whether correctly termed and diagnosed or not). I’m not vulnerable (most people consider me assertive, many would acknowledge me as more than averagely articulate and what is commonly referred to as a high achiever. Yet I too am regularly marginalised, both passively as a result of ignorance and failure to think, and actively as a result of prejudice or sheer laziness.

    I totally and wholeheartedly support your campaign for recategorising. I had thought the Equalities Act had done much to advance our interests. Yet it seems ineffective, an uphill struggle to educate the unaware. And perhaps therefore it is in the field of education that change can start. Is it not time that the study of disability and its effects was added to the National Curriculum?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. thank you so much for writing this! the pagan community’s ideas around disability and disabled people has gotten increasingly distressing lately and you’ve managed to put so much of my thoughts into words that i’ve been having difficulty finding.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This schizophrenic, bipolar, obsessive compulsive, highly anxious, infrequently agoraphobic, panic attack-prone post traumatic stress survivor says that anyone who thinks any of those diagnoses tells them anything about me without actually talking to me and gaining an understanding of what symptoms I currently have and how I work with and around them, can kiss my fat arse. I’ve been ‘ill’ since I was 8. I have 26+ years of lived experience of MY mental health issues, and no one knows me better than me. If I am not critically unwell, which you cannot tell from a list of diagnoses (which are AT BEST an educated guess), I am completely capable of making my own decisions as to my health. Even when I am unwell, other than for my immediate safety, I am the single best person to decide on my care.

    I am beyond sick of the infantalizing attitudes prevalent in the pagan community. I would venture to say that I am more aware of my own mental and emotional stability than someone without a lived experience of mental ill health, and therefore I am in a better position to undertake whatever course I’m not allowed to be part of than the average interested punter. As well as treating people with mental illnesses as if they were children, the pagan community (as a reflection of society as a whole) tends to treat people like me as inherently dangerous to others. Never mind that I am vastly more likely to BE harmed than TO harm, statistically speaking, schizophrenia etc is a convenient tool to other a whole group of people, so that the rest of society/pagandom can feel safer because they are not like ‘us’ and therefore better, and right to exclude us. I would dearly love to think that pagans, on the whole, were smarter than to buy into that line of thinking, but sadly I have been proved wrong, time and again.

    In short, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Thank you for so clearly articulating something that often drives me to incoherent frothing rage.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. This was a really fascinating article and quite an eye opener. I find it hard to believe that a spiritual practice of any kind would seek to exclude the very people often most attuned tto their own psyche and the greater mystery. I was diagnosed when I was young with a psychotic episode but as the years have passed I know this was a truly a profound spiritual awakening that was deadened by prescription drugs and a formulaic and archaic psychiatric practice.The Pagan community as a whole could and should be acting as one of the strongest voices for a fair and just world for all.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you so much for writing this article. I appreciate how well-considered and balanced your argument is, and as a disabled person I appreciate you bringing attention to this.

    I have fibromyalgia, which leaves me frequently exhausted, in pain, and with weakened muscle tone. It’s been very discouraging when I attend a ritual that involves standing around for long periods of time, without even simple accommodations made for those who can’t stand for long periods, like me. (Seriously, a few stools or chairs around the circle makes all the difference, and is not difficult or expensive to arrange.)

    Interestingly, though, I’ve noticed that pagans are often really good about things like food allergies/dietary preferences when it comes to feasting after rituals and such, making sure to label foods with allergens, separate out vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, etc. But other accommodations seem completely off the radar of every group I’ve attended ritual for. No group can be expected to accommodate all disabilities, obviously, but I agree with you that even just a few basic changes to things like location makes all the difference.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post. The shift in mindset you describe is so powerful, and so neccessary. I vividly remember the moment I became aware of my privilege: we had parked on a street and were running late to meet friends, and my partner was dithering. When I tried to hurry him along, he pointed out that the way we were parked would make it impossible for a wheelchair user to pass us. It was a busy road, with a steep kerb. I am ashamed to admit that for one moment I did think “well, that probably won’t happen” – but I was already imagining that it might, and realising how thoughtless and selfish it would be to block the path like that. Something about that moment made it much harder to ignore my responsibility towards creating a more equal society; I guess it was a step in realising how much more I had to learn about different experiences of the world.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you for an excellent article! Since I started working in the government in the disability field, I’ve had to think about a lot of things I never had before and have had my mind opened in many ways. Bless you for bringing this subject out in the open and advocating for equality for EVERYONE.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. And then, to most mainstream folks, Pagans are mad-as-doorbell anyway… (and dangerous) , thus in a sense it is funny, Pagans holding on to the “normal”. And, strictly speaking, OBOD is not a pagan organisation…

    Like

  11. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing this! This post articulates what I’ve been trying (and failing) to express to my own community, which has a policy similar to OBOD’s. Pagan communities need to stop insisting that ableism is okay.

    Like

  12. I struggle with depression and have read the warnings in books of magic about using magic if you have a mental health issue. My depression may affect me on a social level but there is no way in hell am i going to let it dictate what magic i can and can’t practice. Awesome post! Thanks 🙂

    Like

  13. Hi there, I’m just coming across this article now. I have some physical limitations and do agree with a lot of what you say about accessibility. There is one line though I do disagree with, and it’s this one: “But we are the only people who live with our impairments or conditions.” Other people also live with the conditions and impairments of others as they are directly and indirectly affected by them. For example, I am Druid myself but do practice with other groups as well. In one Wiccan group there was a person with schizophrenia and other mental disabilities who so truly believed they were being stalked and harmed by another person, which they later admitted was never true and said their mental illnesses cause them to imagine things happened that didn’t and it wasn’t the first time. It caused a lot of distress for the person they slandered, and for others in the group who now felt uncomfortable because it could easily happen again, as the person didn’t take any responsibility, get the help or mental health care they needed, etc. Also, I lived with an adoptive mother who had bipolar and I can tell you myself and my stepfather lived with her illness every day. I have been discriminated against too but have just had to live with it and adjust, my Druid group often celebrates in the woods which requires a lot of walking (and on uneven ground too) so sometimes I can’t go because of that. What am I to do though? I can’t expect everyone else to not go celebrate in the wooded areas they have been for years because I and others have difficulty. It does make me sad and upset sometimes but there’s really not much I can do. These are all my personal opinions, I’m just presenting a different viewpoint.

    Like

    • While I agree that others are affected by mental illness, it is not comparable to what the person who experienced such conditions goes through. My conditions absolutely affect my partner, but I’m sure he would be the first to say that what he experiences as someone who lives with me is nothing compared to what I experience as the inhabitant of my own body. My partner does not live with my condition. He lives as someone who interacts with someone with my condition. It is NOT the same thing.

      Like

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