Sunday, March 11, 2007

Paying Attention to Accessibility

A few weeks ago, on her blog, Inanna asked: "How different would it be if we paid attention to the needs of people who are sick or have disabilities, rather than trying to fix them?

That got me thinking, and in the spirit of "paying attention," I decided to write about the accommodation of people with PHYSICAL disabilities in Goddess events. Yes, I use the word "disability", writing out of my own experience of having had at various times at least two such physical problems. I realize many prefer the term "differently abled," but this wasn't how it seemed to me when I temporarily had less than the full use of my body parts that I was used to. My experience is that having problems with my body made me unable to fully participate in social, spiritual, or career stuff. So I will use disability and handicap until society changes enough so that such physical problems don't narrow people's lives. I want to add that I think the term "temporarily abled" is appropriate since most of us are likely to have some sort of disability some time in our lives, especially if we live beyond middle age. This brings me to the point that people who are simply getting older very often have different body needs than younger folks.

Here are a few examples of the needs of people with disabilities not being paid attention in our events. Example 1 is from my online life. It happened a year or so ago on a local Pagan mailing list whose main purpose was to give info about upcoming events such as rituals and festivals. A guy posted that he was in his 50s, had recently developed problems walking, and had begun using a cane. He said that this situation seemed like it would be permanent, but that he would like to continue being part of the community. He also noted that with the aging of Baby Boomers, people should expect to have to accommodate an increasing number of people with various disabilities. He asked if people who posted about events could please give accessibility information – such as whether a place was wheel chair accessible, whether a lot of walking or standing would be involved, the parking situation, etc. In the next month many of the posters included this information. But after that, far fewer did, and by several months later hardly anyone was posting full accessibility information and many didn't post any at all.

Example 2: This experience comes to me from a friend I'll call Amy, who was recuperating from a broken left leg. She was still on crutches but wanted to go to a Pagan get-together she saw posted on the list several months after the incident in Example 1. There was no accessibility info posted with the event details, so she called the person hosting the event and asked, "How close can I park to the house?" (Amy had temporary handicap tags, but since this was on a residential street, that wouldn't help) and "How much walking will I have to do in the house – such as stairs?" The host told her that if she came early, she should be able to get a parking place in front of the house, and that there weren't any stairs to do in the house. Amy wasn't thrilled about having to rush to get there before anyone else to park and worried that people from other houses might be parked in front of the house where she was going and she wasn't sure how far she could go on her crutches as she was also in considerable pain. But since she was very interested in the group, she decided to try to get there at least 15 minutes before the event was supposed to start. Considering "Pagan Time," this is very early! When she got there, what did she find? A parking space right in front of the house, yes. But — the street was very hilly and in order to reach the house, Amy would have to climb up at least 20 steep steps. She couldn't do that. She drove home and never contacted the group or host again. Amy couldn't understand how the host could ignore the steps outside the house when answering her question. Neither can I. Was the person so anxious to get people to participate that she was downplaying the difficulties? Or was it that because she was able-bodied (aka temporarily-abled), it didn't even occur to her that a person on crutches would have problems going up and down 20 (or more) steps?

Example 3: Another friend, I'll call her Meg, was well known in the local Goddess community. In the past, she had started a number of Goddess circles and taught beginning Goddess classes. A friend who was starting a full moon ritual group contacted Meg and asked if she would like to be part of the group. The friend said they were looking for a place to have the first meeting but so far no one could have it in their house, either because of child care situations or because other family members wouldn't approve. So Meg invited the group to meet at her house and offered her house for the second meeting too. At the second meeting, several of the women volunteered their homes for upcoming meetings, apparently now motivated enough to work around the child care and partner stuff. Then, between the 2nd and 3rd meetings, Meg had surgery for a painful lower-body nerve and muscle condition that had recently worsened. She needed physical therapy 4 or 5 times a week for the first month after surgery, and then 3 times a week the second month. Meg called her friend both months and explained she wouldn't be able to attend the rituals, which were being held on the same dates she had PT, because she was too tired and still in pain after therapy. Her friend said she understood and to call back when she was ready. Finally Meg was feeling good enough to go to the full moon group. She called her friend, asking where the group was meeting that month. Her friend said she had to check on something and would call Meg her back. After 2 days without hearing from her, Meg called again. The woman apologized for not calling, and then said she had contacted group members and the consensus was that the group had bonded and didn't feel Meg could be included now because she had missed the last few meetings.

OK. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now and I'm not even going to comment on that one.

Here are ways I think we can "pay attention" to the needs of those who don't have the full use of their bodies, those who are in physical pain, or those who are just getting older (ALL of us) and experiencing the normal lessening of body agility that comes with aging:

(1) In written materials (both print and electronic), include accessibility information. For outside events, this might include: how much walking is involved? Is the only seating on the ground? Is the terrain such that wheel chairs or scooters can easily pass over it? For indoor events: What is the parking situation? How many designated handicapped spots are there? How much walking is involved from the parking area to the indoor area? How much walking is involved inside? If the event is being held in a private home, is it okay to bring a wheelchair or scooter in the house? If the event is a ritual, is seating other than on-the-floor included in the ritual circle?

(2) When you plan an event, unless you know everyone who is coming and they are all temporarily-abled, assume that some of the people will have physical disabilities and plan accordingly. Let the questions in (1) be your guide.

Publicity for many events now includes such statements as "If you need special accommodations please contact us." This may be okay for some situations, but people with common physical disabilities should not have to be the ones who have the burden of exerting the extra effort. What they need should not be considered "special accommodations"–this should be included in routine accommodations in both the planning and publicity. I know this is probably not everything that needs to be done, but I hope it's a start. If you have suggestions to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.


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At Monday, March 12, 2007 12:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post!!! Thank you for it - this is such an important issue and one I think is overlooked in our community (which I think is evident from your stories!).


At Wednesday, April 11, 2007 5:52:00 AM, Blogger Yewtree said...

I agree strongly with everything you have said, but wanted to add that events should also plan for Deaf attendees by providing interpreters. And don't get me started on the number of Pagan websites that are inaccessible.

At Wednesday, April 11, 2007 11:25:00 AM, Blogger labyrs said...

Thanks for your comments Sara and Yvonne. Yvonne, you are totally right about the need for interpreters for Deaf attendees. Thanks for putting a link to this post in your comment on that article. We've added a link to on our blogroll. Accessibility is a big issue, and includes many specific issues that I didn't cover in this post. I felt like the post was just a start on what we need to do. Increasing accessibility for people who have difficulty seeing is another issue that needs to be addressed. And the list goes on...I'm glad when people share their ideas here. Thanks again.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.