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.

The King’s Injustice: Choices and Consequences

by Naomi Jacobs

Under the Conservative-led government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London.
Under the Conservative-led UK government, homelessness has risen 55% in the past five years. Photo: homeless man in London. By Victoria Johnson.

After that, Lugaid mac Con was a year in the kingship of Tara, and no grass came through the earth, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. So the men of Ireland expelled him from his kingship, for he was an unlawful ruler.
– Aislinge Meic Conglinne, trans. Preston-Matto, 2010

A ruler’s truth overpowers armies. It brings milk into the world, it brings corn and mast.
– Early Irish text cited in Ó hÓgáin, 1999

In ancient Ireland, the king’s justice, the King’s Truth – fír flathemon – was the condition of sovereignty on which the prosperity of the land depended. If the king ruled with justice, the land prospered. If he failed in this, the land was barren, and the people suffered. Eventually, he would be deposed and a good king would replace him.

On May 7th, the UK had a general election, and a Conservative government was elected. This post is not about party politics. It is about political activism, and why it is needed – especially when the king’s justice is by no means certain for the future.

The Conservative-led UK government has spent the past five years implementing all manner of economically and socially conservative legislation and programmes. These cuts and measures have disproportionately targeted the poorest and most vulnerable* people in UK society. Here are just a few examples. I could have cited many more.

Injustice limits access to justice

Legal aid is an extremely old concept, found in the Bible and other ancient legal systems. It’s been a pillar of the UK social security system for generations, and it exists in many other countries too. The UK government has made sweeping cuts to legal aid, limiting most people’s access to financial support for legal representation. People in the foster care system, homeless people and parents in custody battles are all having to represent themselves in court. The worst affected area has been family law, which has seen a reduction in the use of mediation, which is likely to have had negative effects on families and children. In an unintended side-effect of the implementation of the cuts, people who experience domestic violence have been asked to show evidence of this before legal aid will pay their legal costs. The evidence is required to be no more than 24 months old. And it must be police evidence, which is a serious problem if the police haven’t believed you, or if you’ve been too afraid to report the abuse. Meanwhile, employment tribunal fees are no longer being paid by the government, as a result of which the rate of tribunals has dropped by 90%. This means less justice for those working in insecure jobs, in poor conditions, not receiving minimum wage, or facing discrimination at work. Injustice entrenches itself in the system.

Injustice compounds injustice

Then we’ve had the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If people in social housing have more bedrooms than are deemed necessary, they have to pay more for them. Often this occurs in housing where people have lived for many years, where there can be many reasons for extra bedrooms (including the need for space to store disability-related equipment or to have a care worker sleeping nearby), and which they are now being made to leave. This measure is very badly timed, hitting people simultaneously with other serious housing issues, including a rental market that is spiralling out of control, as landlords charge more and more in rent, especially in the cities. As a result, thousands of people are being forced to move away from their home towns, relocated to cheaper housing elsewhere. This is having a knock-on effect on families, with parents even losing their children to the foster care system. Injustice compounds injustice.

No extra rooms allowed, no matter what you need them for. Photo: wheelchair in a room at home. By Wheelz24.
No extra rooms allowed, regardless of need. Photo: wheelchair. By Wheelz24.

Injustice destroys the weakest

Another horrendous move has been the closure of the Independent Living Fund. This fund helps to pay for the care of the most severely disabled people in our society, ensuring that they do not have to live in care homes, allowing them a measure of independence despite severe impairment. The fund is due to close in July. The government claims that the funding will move into the general local council social care budgets – but it is not ringfenced, i.e. the government will move the funding over without forcing local councils to spend it on the care of disabled people. Local council budgets have been cut by up to 30% across the board, and they are already struggling to pay for the care of disabled and elderly people, whose support is being cut as a result. This moving video features disabled people who are currently supported by the ILF, talking about their fears for the future. It’s worth watching. Injustice is brutal.

Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.
Photo: disabled people protest against cuts. By Roger Blackwell.

There’s also been ‘reform’ of disability benefits – by which the government really means cuts to benefits. Disabled people have been affected by government cuts 18 times harder than non-disabled people, some statistics suggest. Employment Support Allowance, an out-of-work benefit for those who can’t work due to disability, has been scandalously implemented via a ‘fitness to work’ test that has certified people as ready to go back to work just before they died from their conditions, as part of a system which has negatively impacted many people’s health. ESA has since been time-limited for many thousands of people, while ill people are being penalised and having their benefits removed if they cannot keep appointments (because they are sick).There have also been changes to funds that help to pay for the extra costs of disability, regardless of whether or not a person is in work. Without some of this funding, I will have no money to pay the soaring costs of disability in a society that increasingly doesn’t have room for me. I fear for my future and ability to work when I do. Injustice is expensive.

Injustice tramples the rights of the people

The government is now attempting to scrap the Human Rights Act, which allows us such terrible things as the right to freedom of expression, the right to an education, and the right to a private family life.

According to ajgcanada.com, these are all reforms that entrench poverty and increase inequality. Reforms that leave people in desperate situations. Reforms that destroy local services, including social care for elderly people and the National Health Service that all of us rely on (there is very little in the way of decent health insurance available to anyone in this country, except for those who are very rich and healthy). Reforms that kill. Injustice is relentless.

Fír flathamon – our truth, our justice

In a system that allows free elections, we are complicit in ensuring justice for all, and in denying it to anyone. We are the king’s justice, and the absence of it. We voted in a government that plans to aim further cuts at an already-ravaged population of poor and disabled people. We will only be able to blame ourselves when the land is torn apart by fracking, the foxes begin to die again if the hunt returns, homelessness numbers rise and rise, the people suffer because food banks are not enough to meet the needs created by government austerity programmes, and more poor and disabled people die.

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Photo: protester holds sign that reads ‘Ban fracking and support clean green energy’. By The Weekly Bull.

 

One of the worst kickers has been that, when I’ve told US citizens about this situation, hoping for commiseration and support, their reply has mostly been “Welcome to America.” Thanks for the schadenfreude, friends, but I think we can do better than that. One country’s injustice does not mean we have to support a string of unjust systems across the world. If anything, it should make us more keen to fight for justice, both in our own lands and abroad. The UK has a history of an excellent welfare state that was a true safety net for those in trouble. We should all fight its collapse, not celebrate it.

Religious institutions have been slow to respond to the injustice of the austerity measures and cuts in Britain. So slow, in fact, that our Prime Minister recently felt able to co-opt Christian frameworks in support of his cuts. But members of various religions are starting to step forward and speak out against the situation. Pagans need to do the same. We have access to many myths and metaphors that highlight how social injustice can lead to social and economic collapse for all. Some of those myths have been validated in the modern world – we know that societies that emphasise social justice and reduce inequality tend to do better economically and socially. The good judgments of the king really do lead to a prosperous and peaceful land. The opposite is also true. The land will not prosper while the people are oppressed. No grass comes through the earth in Britain today, nor leaf on tree, nor grain in corn. It’s just that not everyone can see that yet.

Today, the King’s Truth is our responsibility. It is our truth. Today, the majority has failed the minority in society, those who are weakened to sustain the power of the rich, of the more privileged. The bankers who get away with economic collapse. The politicians who get away with murder. We give them their power. We can take it away again.

But on May 7th, we failed to do that. We elected a government that we knew were planning to extend austerity measures and to create even more devastation and destruction. We could have deposed the king and replaced him with wise and just ministers. We chose instead to sustain and support gau flathemon, the injustice of kings.

The question is, what are we going to do about it now?

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Photo: a large sign held up by protestors reads “Thatcher’s gone – now let’s bury Thatcherism”. By Darren Johnson.

*Generally I dislike the word vulnerable, but in this case it’s true. Society is making disabled people, and others, ever more vulnerable in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s another thing that we choose to allow, to stand by while it becomes ever more true.

References

Preston-Matto, 2010, Aislinge Meic Conglinne (the vision of Mac Conglinne). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Ó hÓgáin, 1999, The Sacred Isle. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

All photographs used under Creative Commons licence.