Reflections on Disability and Paganism
My Year in AIRA
by Alex Spurlock
As 2021 ends and I find myself realizing I’ve been involved in something for a whole year, I want to reflect on this time. What lessons have I learned? What is this whole accessibility thing? What do our communities need and want? I plan to keep this to what I’ve personally shared and broad generalizations (with a few exceptions who have given their express permission) as we keep our space confidential, but I still think there are plenty of lessons learned and ongoing questions to be discussed.
The Ableism-Impacted Reclaiming Alliance (AIRA), an affinity group within the Reclaiming tradition, grew out of a need. One that was always there but couldn’t be seen well until the pandemic forced everyone to reconsider how they were doing things. Rituals, camps, conventions, classes, and magical interest groups moving online opened up a world of options that had not existed previously for many of us with mental and physical disabilities, differing ability, chronic illness, and neurodivergence. A wise individual suggested a get together online to discuss these issues and what other accessibility needs may be overlooked within Reclaiming communities. By and large, I’ve found an openness to the concept of accessibility and many efforts underway, but there was no organized effort to discover what it means in these contexts for the individuals. So a group of loosely associated strangers from across the globe met tentatively, planting a seed for what would grow out of it.
This phase turned out to involve a lot of sacred witnessing. And time and again, that has been important. Having a confidential space to share with others who have faced similar issues, a space for the grief and hurt, for the shared societal experiences around disability in general but also in pagan spaces specifically. Most of us didn’t realize how much we needed to share and sit together until we started. I left the meeting certain something important had happened. And the following days brought a sense of peace and new drive I didn’t know I was missing. There was work to do, but I felt seen and understood in a new way.
Some weeks passed. The year before had already been immensely challenging for the world. So I focused on my health and staying safe. I held my breath as the world waited on vaccines and the winds of political change. We started to discuss some topics on Facebook and continued to commiserate with one another. I was excited when the next meeting was scheduled, and we began to discuss what it is exactly that we wanted to do. This amorphous being began to take shape as we dared to dream of things we didn’t yet have the courage to ask for.
We started to have more formal meetings with assigned roles, taking turns, preparing agendas. The original creator of the group had to step back, and so Violetta and I stepped forward to co-lead. Sharing leadership has afforded us the ability to divide tasks and cover for each other when one runs out of energy or has a symptom flare up. It has also added multiple perspectives that have been helpful in considering each element of our process. And there was a lot to talk about: the magic we’d like to see, how we’d like to interact with the larger community, what the group’s needs were, how to approach accountability, and how to create a space for us. Over and over this concept resurfaced. That many felt there was no place for them in the existing spaces despite no ill intent on the part of the communities. We found a few factors that seemed to contribute to this reality.
Finances and Capitalism
The greatest barrier to access in nearly all situations is money. Reclaiming is an international tradition that exists within several different types of economy, but it did start in the USA where I happen to be, a capitalist system. AIRA has several members in other countries as well, but most are affected on some level financially when it comes to participation in events in general.
Putting on events costs money, and the sad reality is that it is more expensive to pay for spaces with things like handicapped accessible buildings and bathrooms, comfortable seating, extra rooms and indoor beds to accommodate things like CPAP machines and chronic fatigue and pain, sensory overload, and mental health management needs. It’s expensive to pay for on site medics and therapists to be available if needed. Many organizers are working around other jobs that do pay their bills, so an intensive pace can make more sense financially. But for some of us, it wears us out so fast that we miss large chunks, and we sometimes leave feeling we wasted our money/scholarship and time. It’s expensive to travel to and from event sites, especially if they aren’t local. I personally can’t use the limited public transit that is available because I simply can’t stand and sit as long as needed to use it. And it will not work to get me anywhere out of town or later at night even if I could. None of these are luxuries or extras to us, though they are billed as such. They are basic access needs without which we cannot participate. And yet we are also keenly aware that there is no consistent government funding to assure these things, that the teachers and organizers are themselves trying to get by in the same economies and cultures.
Organizers reasonably must charge what it costs to run their camps and events, but $150+ is such a significant part of my SSI for the month that it is completely impossible for me financially. Many of these events try to open at least some scholarship slots, which is a great step, but it also isn’t nearly as many as there are of us in need nor does it cover the many other costs that surround getting there and being there. This is fundamentally a cultural problem, an economic problem that is endemic to our cultures’ attitudes toward poverty, disability, and nonproductive bodies. I have stopped myself from asking for scholarships because I felt unworthy receiving it since I can’t work for it. Like I’ve already asked too much, like I am two strikes against, and asking any more would cross some line into being a bad person, causing all help to be withdrawn. Like I went past “too much” years ago and should try to minimize my needs and wants at all costs. I’ve told myself that someone else must need it, deserve it more than me. I don’t think I’m the only one who has felt these ways.
There are a few areas where there has been quite a bit of community pushback. One of the biggest ones is scent. There are community members who are very sensitive to some or all strong scents. We are witches, and many of us love burning our favorite herbs and incenses, anointing in oils, lighting scented candles, or filling a space with appropriate seasonal smells, and yet this means that those among us with those sensitivities simply cannot go to most public rituals. The more people going, the harder this becomes to manage.
I’ve heard of groups who offer scent free soaps and hair products in the showers at camp and ask all to wash with those. I’ve noticed North Bay Reclaiming use the battery powered candles both for safety but also to minimize scents. Zoom events are also a great additional option as it cuts out the issue entirely. These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, but it is one that I’ve seen come up a lot I suspect because there is a strong emotional attachment to these sensory experiences that have been a part of our traditions for a long time. I admit that 20 years ago, I was totally thoughtless about it. I was one of those smokers who wasn’t going to change for anyone. I wore oils and burned incense every day at the witch shop where I worked. Making this request and some others related to access may make you very uncomfortable. I urge you to sit with it and try to honor it but move past those initial emotional reactions. Smaller groups may be able to see if they have anyone in their group with these sensitivities. You can negotiate around it if you have a fixed set of people. But when you are open to the public at large, I urge you to consider how you may reduce the scent intensity of your space. Our magicks transcend any individual item we use and will adapt as we do.
Another area where I have seen resistance is when we ask for changes related to long held habits around grounding, circle casting, and other elements of ritual. The best example is the tradition of the rooted grounding. Many automatically use the phrase “feel your feet on the floor”. But some of us can’t stand, some may not have feet, or be in some other circumstance where that isn’t possible. I’ve seen some adapt this to say “wherever your body is connecting to the ground or furniture”. It seems to be a hard habit for some to break. I’ve also run into those who are unable to visualize or have trauma triggered by deep trance work, so they often feel left to just sit there for 20-30 minutes with nothing to do. Some could use much more physically embodied circle casting, perhaps having a pentacle to trace by hand. Some need an option other than dance. And the list goes on and on.
There are so many things to take into account that it can feel overwhelming. Offering other things to do to participate is something we are exploring in AIRA, and it feels key to make sure it doesn’t feel tacked on or cause a feeling of exclusion or being singled out. Spiral Dance’s addition of sign language is a great example of how you can do it well. It wasn’t tacked on or an afterthought. It was well-planned and effectively carried out. There are many services and people these days in the world at large who can be consulted around creating accessibility for any event, and including the voices of these marginalized groups in planning is very important.
Another major area of push back has been around the rustic nature of some camps and event sites. Being a nature based religion, it is understandable that some hope to get out in it. But everything from uneven ground, long walks, lack of easily accessed bathroom facilities, excessive cold or heat, lack of comfortable seating and bedding, lack of electricity access for medical devices, and calls to engage in activites that are too hard on our bodies and/or minds can make participation extremely difficult or impossible. We can’t all run into the wild at night, and we should not be shamed or excluded for our lack of ability to do so. Which is not to say others can’t be offered the chance to frolic, just that offering other inclusive options as well is more welcoming to a wider range of people. At the heart of it, I believe it is very important to remind everyone that care of their bodies, minds, and needs should always come first, and not just for those with disabilities. Encouraging self care for everyone is important. We aren’t just our own spiritual authorities, we are also the most knowledgeable about our bodies and minds.
Intersectionality has been a strong theme as we have delved deeper into each of these issues. Quite obviously there is the strong interaction between disability and poverty, but gender, race, sexuality, colonial history, age, and many other factors come into play regularly in AIRA and other spaces where these things are being discussed. Disability and poverty frequently go hand in hand since many countries make getting government support difficult, and what is provided for those who do get it isn’t adequate to meet basic needs let alone paying for classes, camps, workshops, and conventions. This can make meaningful participation out of reach for many, as simple things like getting there in a way that supports our bodies and minds can become prohibitively expensive. Work trade just isn’t possible for some people. And frankly, that still falls within the narrative that participation must be earned or paid for. I understand the incredibly difficult position organizers and teachers are in since they too need to make a living, but the impact is that our nonproducing community members, our elderly, our chronically ill, and several other groups are excluded by default. And that is a tragedy not just for us, but for the larger community who are missing out on what we have to offer too. This exclusion means fewer organizers, teachers, and weavers with these perspectives, particularly as intersectional identities layer, because they are not present at the events where social ties are forged and strengthened. Student teaching and apprenticeship opportunities become very limited. And thus we remain on the outside.
I’ve also run into a strong overlap with the LGBTQIA+ community as a queer witch myself, where coping with cultural oppression can come with some serious costs to health. And when this intersects with poverty as well, it can mean a lack of access to healthcare specific to these groups. This easily results in an inability to participate in pagan events as well. Likewise for many other marginalized and historically oppressed groups whose experience I hope to learn more about as time goes by. I am thankful to those who have shared already, and I think hearing these voices is going to be so key to better understanding intersectionality in this context.
Building a Community That Fits Us
Chiron, the Wounded Healer, has been a big part of our magical work and become a bit of a mascot for us. Some of our members (sisalfierce and Maré) have designed a beautiful trance working with his myth cycle that we’ve done a couple of times. It is designed to support differing bodies and minds. The first time we had an almost comical breakdown of Zoom and technology that broke up the flow, but we all had a laugh and told ourselves it was so appropriate for this group. We all know that feeling of our equipment not going along with our plans. I was very anxious when it happened, but I came to appreciate the lessons it offered to me. Slow down. Take a breath. Take your time. Move at the pace that supports you. And this last one especially has been at the core of my approach to co-leadership within this group. The only deadlines we have are ones we set for ourselves. If the group doesn’t have enough spoons for a meeting one month, we just don’t have it. And that is okay. If we are to build a place for ourselves, it has to really accommodate us and our actual minds and bodies.
We have since planned and carried out more rituals and presentations and will continue to do so. Every time, at least one person comes to me and the group and tells us how important it was to them to feel seen and included. Recently, we took part in the 42nd annual Spiral Dance as the group calling Spirit. It was an honor and received even more positive response. There is a hunger, a need for this for a lot more people than I realized at the outset. We will all eventually face some limitations that will make our participation in community more difficult, and I am so privileged to be here, in this time, as we see the seeds we planted begin to grow. This community has an incredible capacity for compassion and understanding, an ability to sit with the harder realities of existing in all kinds of human bodies and minds over time. I am certain we are creating a bridge to the rest of the community as we also find a place for ourselves.
I don’t have all the answers, but keeping the conversation live and going feels very important to weaving the magic that can create change and understanding. I deeply admire this group’s commitment to do the sometimes hard work, even if we hit bumps in the road, and the passion everyone brings. Striving for accountability, I can see some patterns emerging that make me feel safe, seen, and like we can work it out if we run into difficulties. I hope to keep working to make it feel safe for everyone.
Thank you, Violetta, for being my partner in carrying this work forward. Thank you, sisalfierce, for your songs and hard work on our rituals and all the myriad ways you’ve supported us. Thank you, Maré, for your technical skills, unwavering support and dedication, and the beautiful magic you bring. Thank you, Karin, for your guidance, your steadfast dedication, and all the hard work you’ve done connecting us to the larger Reclaiming community. Thank you to all those who have participated, put their souls into this work, given feedback, loaned us Zoom accounts, been supportive, showed interest, and held us all in our perfect imperfection.
If this work calls to you, you want to participate, or are just curious, please reach out.
We have a group on Facebook and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.