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.
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?


[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 .

[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.