As a special treat for you blog readers that do not listen to the show, Episode 55 (Inciting A Disabled Riot) has been given the transcript treatment. It was only fitting, as we discussed physical and mental disabilities on the show, that we provided a way to 'listen' to that show for those Rioters that are deaf or hard of hearing.
So, without further ado, I give you Episode 55: Inciting A Disabled Riot with special guest (almost) Dr. Sophia Catherine! (After the jump...just to save page space.)
Love and Lyte,
Inciting a Disabled Riot
FL: Hello, rioters! And welcome to episode 55 of Inciting a Riot: the podcast. I would be your left-wing, dirt-worshipping host Fire Lyte. Today we have a very special treat. In the spirit and vein of pagan values blogging/podcasting/’open your mouth and speak and don’t stop until somebody begs you to’ month, I have a very special guest for episode 55, which is what we are doing today: Inciting a Disabled Riot.
One of the topics that has come up recently in the blogosphere and in the pagan podiospehere is the idea that we should both include and get to know our disabled pagan brothers and sisters, but that we are also ignoring the various brands of crazy in the pagan community to the point where we tend to sweep some things under the rug. I have with me an expert on matters on all things disabled and getting to know the disabled community, a woman with a masters degree in her PhD programme on the subject, Ms. Sophia. Hello Sophia.
FL: So it’s Sophia Catherine, is that correct?
SC: That’s right. I go by Sophia Catherine.
FL: Ms. Sophia Catherine, all the way from the gorgeous United Kingdom.
SC: Oh, it’s so cold here. Not gorgeous. It’s freezing. In late June.
FL: I have to say it’s such a treat to hear your voice. It’s so gorgeous and wonderful and makes you sound so much smarter. I think that anybody with a English accent automatically has 10 points of intelligence added to them.
SC: When I am done with my PhD I am going to come and teach in America and my students will just sit and awe of my accent. I won’t have to say anything intelligent.
FL: Sophia, I wanted to get just a little bit of background, because usually when I have folks on the show, it’s people that are not conventionally thought of, you know, especially at my pagan podcasting standards, and by most podcasting standards in general, for an interview. So usually I try to get folks that really have some kind of academic basis of knowledge in their field and I couldn’t think of anybody better than you because, go ahead and give a little bit of your credentials, do a little bit of bragging on yourself.
SC: Ooh, I don’t like bragging. OK. Well, I have an MA in Disability Studies from the University of Leeds, where the Centre for Disability Studies was one of the first in the world to offer the programme. There are a few universities in the States that offer it as well and a few other countries but the University of Leeds is well known for it. Disability Studies is basically sociology but with a focus on disability. So I’ve got very into my sociology the last few years, which is fab, we love it.
FL: I love sociology.
SC: And then, just to get even more specialist, I decided to do my PhD on Christianity in particular, but religion in general, and disability, for which I have moved to a university that has a Centre for the Study of Society, Religion and Belief, which is where I am working with people who are looking at things like LGBT adoption and the Catholic Church, things like the Muslim community and feminism, the Jewish community and feminism. Really exciting projects going on there, so I tie in with that. So I’ve got both more specialist and more general, which is great fun. And for quite a few years now I have been studying the way that people relate to disabled people. I’ll come to terminology in a minute, but I say “disabled people”. And why we as a society think of disabled people in a certain way, how our beliefs around disability have developed, how communities deal with disabled members, and especially how religions do.
FL: So when it comes to trying to find somebody to talk about disabilities in religion, some various religions around the world, you’re really the person to talk to.
SC: There are a couple of others, and my university is having a symposium soon which has a section on disability and religion, which will be excellent fun, but they had a hard time finding people to talk. So yeah, I’m one of the first, which is very exciting.
FL: I am very excited to have you on and very honoured, I have to say. I hope one day to get to your level of education.
SC: You’re too kind. I only have this much education because I don’t have enough to do and I go “right, I am going to learn everything I can about this topic”. It gets a little bit boring for my friends.
FL: Well I guess not to bore anybody else, we should dive in. Before we get to disabilities, if we are going to be talking about disabilities in religion, but not just in Paganism, we are going to be talking about it in the three main Abrahamic traditions as well, of Judaism, Islam and Chrisitianity. But before we get to any of that, we should probably lay some groundwork for what is a disability, what are the proper terms, how many people are disabled and all of that.
SC: Sure, well. To start with, just a quick thing around language then. You will hear Americans talking about “people with disabilities” and you will hear British people talking about “disabled people”. Now, we are two countries divided by a language, as somebody said, but it’s not just a cultural difference, it’s also partly about the way that disabled people are thought of in each of the countries. So Americans like people-first language, they like to put the person before the disability. In Britain, a movement around disability has grown up around the idea that it’s society that makes you disabled, so you have a condition or an impairment, and that’s separate from the social oppression that society imposes upon you in addition to that. So we talk about ourselves as “disabled people” because we don’t think it makes a lot of sense to “have a disability” when the disability is being imposed on you. But it’s really such a tiny technical thing. It’s debated at great length in academic textbooks, but it’s really not that important. But just in case anybody emails you and says we shouldn’t talk about “disabled people”, I just use the British terminology and Americans do tend to prefer “people with disabilities”. But as long as the language is respectful, I don’t think it’s a big deal.
FL: It’s kinda like one of those conundrums of where do you put the comma in the sentence. In that famous sentence, “eats, shoots and leaves” and wherever you put the comma, it changes a whole set of meanings for people. But I will say that I tend to agree with you in the sense of putting a “with”, putting a little conjoining word, changes too much.
SC: I was at a conference and somebody said “we don’t talk about ‘people with femaleness’”, so I think of it like that, it would be a bit silly. But at the same time I understand that there is an American disabled community that has chosen to be referred to a certain way, so.
FL: Now, I wasn’t planning on going here, but I would like to get your opinion on that, since we are talking about language. Do you feel that sometimes people can get a little too overly touchy about terminology, about the way in which they are spoken about? Because I have gotten emails from people, when I said the word “fat” on my podcast and I was told “no, it is ‘people of size’, not ‘fat people’” and I thought, really? Because “people of size” I start thinking “wow, what kind of size must this person be to be a person of that size?”
SC: It’s a bit like where you had a riot where you talked about political correctness. It’s all about finding the balance, which Paganism is all about. I’m really keen on Paganism and balance. I think it’s about... it’s really difficult because those of us who are disabled, are very used to having very derogatory language thrown at us, from the playground onwards, “cripple” and “spastic” and really derogatory terms, that it’s not so much the words as their associations and what you know is being said by that word. But I think there is a big difference between using derogatory terms and getting into the details of exactly what’s correct. As long as people are being respectful, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Obviously, there is a lot of views on this. People will disagree with me.
FL: I do have one other question. Who do you think is more offended by those terms? The people that are actually disabled, the people who are actually been called those terms or do you think the people, that non-disabled people are offended by those terms more, that tend to be so reactionary, “how dare you say that, how dare you say that” and I know that I remember growing up and coming out and all of that and, you know, people would be like “gay... oh sorry, homosexual” and it was like “you can say the word, I’m not going to kill you”. It seems that other people seem more offended by the word.
SC: There are words that are like that. I often talk about “I’m going for a walk” and people say “no, no, no, you are pushing yourself in your wheelchair.” No, I’m going for a walk, it’s the colloquial term. I’ll say to a friend who is visually impaired “do you see?” and then I’ll say “No! I don’t mean ‘do you see’! I mean something else.” So, yes, I think we can get sensitive ourselves about how we are coming across and really most people don’t mind. But like I say, it’s just about being respectful, so I don’t think we need to worry too much. I don’t think most blind people mind being asked if they see your point, and I certainly don’t mind being asked if I would like to come for a walk.
FL: I would just like to say that you have officially shot up my list of favourite people because you just made a pun about blind people seeing and you sued the word “colloquial” and you used it correctly, which makes me just so happy [Eds note: vive la British education!].
SC: I used to be an English teacher so I know my words and I love your word sections. So, in terms of language, it’s complicated but I think, as long as you are being respectful.
FL: So speaking of language, when we talk about disabled people or, in the US, people with disabilities, how many people are we talking about? I mean are we talking about 50 people, 1000?
SC: I actually had an article published about this which was then talked about on a BBC radio show.
SC: Thank you. It wasn’t talked about in a particularly good way! I’m not good with maths, so I miscalculated a number, I think, to do with the number of disabled people in Britain. But some statistics say that in Britain it’s 20% of people who are covered by our anti-discrimination laws for disability and the number seems to be about the same with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, obviously, you are talking about anyone who needs to be protected from discrimination. Not all of those people will always call themselves “disabled,” and again it’s a fluid category. It’s not quite the same as being black or being gay, where there are some fluid areas, but mostly people are clear that they are black or they are gay. On the whole, it varies an awful lot whether people want to call themselves disabled, or want to say they have a disability, or not. So it’s really hard to count. But I go with the people who are protected by anti-discrimination laws because I think, if disability is social oppression and people are facing discrimination then those who need protecting from that discrimination, that’s basically the number you are looking at. So it’s about one in five and it’s many more people than you would expect on that basis.
FL: That’s kind of incredible. I mean, if you think about your five friends, you’re probably talking about at least 20% of them. You are talking about probably one of your close circle of friends is somewhat affected by what we are talking about today.
SC: And the reason my article got me into trouble was, there was a survey put out by a disability organisation in the UK which said that something like 80% of British people said that they had never had a disabled person over to their house, and then there was a debate coming out of my article as to whether it was the case that they didn’t know that person was disabled, was it a case of we’re not clearly labelling who is disabled, does it matter... it gets very very complicated. But I think, yeah, most people know somebody who is protected under the ADA, or the British discrimination laws, or the laws of their country that protect disabled people. That is quite eye-opening.
FL: Now, are there disabled persons that, I mean, what would cause somebody to not want to label themselves as disabled? Is it just a personal pride thing, or are there other factors?
SC: Some people don’t want to be associated with term because it’s been used for certain groups of people and not others. So, there is a long history in the British disability movement of people with mental health problems wanting to campaign together with that movement but not wanting to be called “disabled,” because some of them have been saying that it tends to evoke images of people who people who use wheelchairs or who are blind or deaf, the more traditional images of the disabled person, rather than, say, somebody who has a long term illness or has a mental health condition. So, they might not like the associations. And also some people see it as a very negative term, again, because of the way terms are used against people. So I respect the view that some people might not like to call themselves “disabled”.
FL: Because you touched on it, one thing before we get into the various way that religions view disabled persons, what constitutes being disabled? I mean, you just brought up a very good point of, you know, when you say “disabled” one of the immediate reactions in the blind person with the walking stick or somebody in a wheelchair and to a lesser extent a mental disability, but I think that the greater community, especially, I by no means have any sort of degree in psychology but I do have a minor in it and, just from the few abnormal psychology classes that I have taken, it seems like the majority of the population has this very skewed idea as to what that is, but we do have an idea, so there’s people in wheelchairs and there’s people that are blind and there’s people that are kind of crazy and need lobotomies. So, you know, what is the reality, what does an actual disability look like?
SC: This is sort of part of the problem with the whole idea of disabled communities. We are not really a community because there is so much variation. There are so many people that you could call disabled. It’s a little bit easier to talk about a black community or a gay community, even though even that is difficult. This is even more difficult, going down the scale and going into the fuzzy area on the left. I mean, for me, there are two things that make a person disabled: somebody whose civil rights are denied on some level because of a long-term condition or impairment - impairment is the best word really - somebody whose civil rights are denied because of that, and somebody who faces discrimination because of that. I think that if you consider yourself to be in a category where you’ve got some civil rights denied and you’ve got discrimination that you are facing, because of a condition that is either physical or mental, then that puts you in that category, but as I said, I totally respect people who do fall into that camp but say “I don’t want to be called ‘disabled’ for this reason or that reason”. But it’s a really useful term and it has brought people together to fight for things like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would not have happened without a lot of campaigning. For me, if you want an analogy, there is a really good analogy with LGBT people which I always think about, because I am gay as well as disabled. In theory, LGBT people don’t have to be a minority group. We could be part of the great variety of human sexuality and gender, but because in our society, we are denied some of our civil rights, like the right to marry, and maybe the right to fight in an army, and so on, and because we are treated with a lot of discrimination, we become a minority group.
FL: That’s the in-group/out-group dichotomy that I like to talk about.
SC: This is partially a social construction and partially something more natural. And I think it’s very similar for disability, although the issues are different. It’s partly something that you might be born with or acquire and that is part of you, and partly something external from society that is added on to that. So I think it’s both simple and very complicated.
FL: It is interesting and I think it segues nicely into the religious part of the conversation. But it is interesting to hear you say that, you know, that disabilities are such an umbrella term because there are some people that one would call disabled that the person does not consider themselves to be disabled and all of these things and it’s the same exact issue that we are having with trying to define what it is that Paganism is.
SC: That’s been so interesting for me. I’m just beginning to look into Paganism over the last few months and I recognise the issue straight away, these debates over what is this and what is that.
FL: What is Paganism and, well, for me, this is not the conversation, this is just something I harp on over and over again, for me, it’s always so interesting to see how we’ve come up as a group in the last 50-60 years and we kind of want to establish a little bit more credibility than we actually have at this point and so we have been appropriating, well, if you are Hindu now, you are a part of us, and if you are this you are part of us and I think we are trying to shovel more groups into our collectiveness.
SC: It’s possible that we have done something similar with disability and that things will settle a little bit and we’ll realise that some people have en masse decided to be outside that label and that’s good for them, and so on. But I think that a bit like with Paganism, when you are campaigning for recognition, often on a political or policy level, it’s important to be able to say, “I am this” because that’s how our society works. It labels groups, so “you are in this box and now we understand you”.
FL: You have heard me speak about the whole snowflake idea. The problem is that if we continue to move forward, if we do have issues of civil rights, if we do have issues of trying to gain religious acceptance... A few years ago we were having the issue of can our dead Pagan soldiers get the Pentacle put on their headstone in Arlington National Cemetery. Well, the battle was won, thankfully and they can put their own symbol on their headstone. It’s not until problems like that arise that we realise “well, this is how society functions.” And as much as there are so many wonderful little snowflakes out there that do not want the term applied to them, they may also want some rights at some point. They may also want the ability to say, “well, I am this, so please help me” or “I am this and I relate to that as well” and as different as we all are, it is coming to a point, I think, that like you said, where there is some settling that needs to happen. We need to at least get around the idea that a term should never be applied, you know, that a term needs to be used, because just like you said you cannot fight for the rights of disabled people if the very group that you are trying to fight for the rights for can’t even agree that they are all in the same group.
SC: Yeah, it’s very very difficult and we’ve been discovering this. That if we’re divided and all fighting tiny corners of rights, a tiny group are going to get rights and another group will not and that’s just counter productive. So, I think that eventually we will agree on a term, whatever it is, and agree on the idea of an umbrella concept.
FL: Now, one thing I do love and I should have asked this when you were first tooting your own horn, but one thing I do love and one of the reasons that I was very keen on asking to the show is that you do not necessarily consider yourself Pagan. This is sort of a new research topic for yourself.
SC: It’s been an interesting one for me. It’s a brilliant interesting one. Yeah, I went to my first Pagan moot the other night.
FL: How was it?
SC: The people were so wonderful! I didn’t mention the word “Christian”.
FL: Because you grew up with and mostly identify with Christianity.
SC: I do identify with Christianity but I’m getting into, yeah, bigger things, which I have had a lot of influence around, because my father is interested in Taosim and Shamanism and other things and has a very interesting mix of beliefs, and I am slowly starting to realise that I do too. As you know with these things, it’s a long path.
FL: It is a long path, it’s a long a winding path. But I do want to highlight that, because a lot of the time, when the Pagan folk go out and find their expert there is a lot of confirmation by us that happens, because they go out and find people that look and smell and sound a believe exactly like they do, so the way that they speak about particular topics tends to be skewed by their personal religious beliefs and what I love about the conversation that we are about to have is that yours is not.
SC: That’s true. And even when it comes to studying Christianity, I thought very carefully when I was choosing my research topic, about whether I could be objective about it. But when it comes to Christianity, I’m probably the most objective Christian out there. I am the type that comes back from church and rants about what was said. So I decided it wasn’t a bad idea to start there. But I do hope to move on and look at other religions too, and I am really fascinated by the reading that I have been doing about Paganism and the idea of the body and health and all these things that come into Paganism and how it relates to other religions.
FL: You have transitioned us very quaintly, very subtly right into talking about those other religions. First up, I think we are going to be talking about Judaism. How are disabled persons or persons with disability, we will be using both terms, we will use them interchangeably, how are those people treated in Judaism?
SC: Well, the interesting thing about Judaism, as one to start with, along with religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, is that it is a very old religion, going back to tribal times, when the tribe of Hebrews was being set apart in their religion from the tribes around them in the Middle East. And what we don’t know an awful lot about is what was going on at the time when the stories that now form the Bible were being put together, the laws that Jews now follow were being put together in the way that we would now recognise them, into the ten commandments and the other laws in the Tanach... sorry my phone is going....
FL: That’s ok, that’s the wonderful thing about podcasting. It’s...
SC: Oh, dreadful. All these podcasters that I have been listening to have been saying “I try to turn my phone off”...!
So it’s really hard to know what any ancient peoples thought about disability but what is clear is that the categories that we now think in were probably not the ones that they thought in because we are living in a modern world where certain things are difficult for disabled people, but in an ancient world very different things might have been difficult. So, for example, a woman who couldn’t have children, that would probably have been seen as a disability with a great deal of stigma around it in ancient Jewish society, because of a focus on the family and having children and so on. A really important word, when we are looking at Judaism and disability is the term “stigma”, which comes from Greek. The ancient Greeks used the term to refer to bodily signs that they considered evidence of something, probably something morally disordered in a person. And today we use it to mean a kind of disgrace that dehumanises people and a lot of disabled people experience stigma. In Judaism stigma is a pretty big issue because it is a religion that is focused on purity. When they were led out of the desert, they had to find ways to set themselves apart for a God who they believed was so pure and so holy that they would die if they weren’t holy enough, literally. If you looked at the face of God and weren’t holy enough, that would be the end for you. So they have a lot of laws that are very old about setting themselves apart for God.
FL: If I may, I actually, because I knew that we were going to be talking about Abrahamic religions, I pulled a couple of verses from the book of Leviticus in the bible. Sorry all you Pagan folks out there that hate the word “bible” or any words from it, but I felt it was appropriate and helps to put it in a little bit of context. But it’s from Leviticus 21:16-23. Which says:
The LORD said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.’”
SC: Absolutely, and that’s exactly the set of verses that are relevant. Now, that sounds really discriminatory. It sounds like a list of things that we don’t want in our society. But if you think about it, in a belief system where you thought that you were going to die if you weren’t holy enough and where you believed that some element of holiness was about appearing in a correct way, it does make a certain amount of sense, for the time. And what we know is that, because of that and other sources, we know that if you had one of those listed impairments, you couldn’t come near the central area of the temple, where God was considered to dwell. You could only be in the outer courts of the temple. Now, some scholars say that was as far as it went. Those people were not excluded from the rest of society, just in worship. But others say there is no way you can have a list like that in the Bible, with it being the way that you conducted worship, and it not to have some kind of effect on the way that you live your ‘mundane’ lives, if you like. So it seems that there was probably stigma in Judaism as a result of the way that they wanted to worship. So it’s kind of a negative side effect, without necessarily meaning to be.
FL: And what we do know from historical sociology and, I am sure you know this as well, but that there are a lot of verses that either specify various kinds of discrimination or they at least hint at them, things like racism, that a son or daughter of this tribe should not marry somebody from another tribe and those verses have been used to intimate racism and things like that. But what we have come to learn in historical sociology is that, well, being one of the ancient Hebraic people, being one of the ancient Jews, it was not just a religion. This was also a race of people, and in fact, in those old days, whatever religion you were, it almost tied to your race, to your culture, and so the reason that a lot of those verses and a lot of that “discrimination” in the bible exists, is because this race of people, who wrote the bible, was afraid that if they sent their son or daughters off to marry in another tribe, if they started mixing with people of other races, if they allowed people who, in this instance, were not physically fit or at least, to their mindset, if they allowed imperfections and they allowed themselves to water down their genepool, so to speak, then they would literally go extinct. Because it was such a small group to begin with, these people were looking at actual societal extinction, so when we look at things like discrimination in the Bible, when we look at things like supposed racism or supposed homophobia, or supposed this or supposed that, a lot of that was because they were not actually racist in the sense that @we do not like you because of your skin,” but “we do not like you because you are a threat to us even existing”.
SC: Exactly, yeah. And you’ve got to remember that the Hebrew people considered themselves a priestly race. They were the group that would bring the rest of the world closer to God and that was what their God had told them. And that doesn’t mean that everything that was said then is relevant to today, and, as sociologists having an objective approach to religion, we can see that and that can be a useful thing to know about. So, I think there was definitely some issue around disability at the time, but it’s really hard to know how far it went, partly because there is also some interesting portrayal of disability in the Jewish Bible and if you read the Tanach, which is the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, you will find some really fascinating stories that reflect an understanding of disability that is very complex, I think, for the time, certainly an understanding of cause and effect, so if you don’t look after yourself you might become ill, and also spiritual cause and effect. So Miriam, the sister of Moses, sins against the Lord and is struck down, I think, with leprosy and they pray for her to be restored. So there is kind of an exploring of the way the world works and working out of your place in it, which there is quite a lot of wisdom in and it’s very interesting. The other really interesting thing about the Jewish Bible is that the Tanach is very focused on justice for the disempowered and the disenfranchised. There’s lots of very interesting verses that liberal Christians use an awful lot, talking about seeking justice in the world, not leaving widows and orphans without any food, lifting up the people who need lifting up. I think it’s Isaiah that talks about not placing a stumbling block before the blind. Very wise for the time - ideas of protecting those who need protection and again, part of that was that they are from your own community and this is a community religion and the idea of working together, and some of that can be very positive. And Judaism is also very focused on this world. A lot of Jews do believe in an afterlife, but their main focus is on what’s going on on the earthly plane. And so, if you are living for God now, you are going to try to create a society that reflects that and that’s what a lot of the talk of justice in the Tanach is about. And it’s worth a read. It’s worth dipping into, because there is some very wise stuff there. So, yeah. In terms of how that all translates to today, there is certainly some of that justice idea that translates into Jewish society today. Jewish communities are very well known for taking care of each other. It is a religion of the family and of the community and they pride themselves on principles of care for the family and community. I know a lot about this because my partner is Jewish, although she is an atheist. She is one of those interesting Jewish atheist mixes. But I have learnt quite a lot since being with her.
FL: Because if you are Jewish, that is a racial thing. It is “What is your race?” “I am Jewish”. Just because some people may be confused. You can be an atheist Jew. You can be an Islamic Jew. You can be a Pagan Jew. You can be whatever Jew, Jew does not necessarily define the fact that you have chosen not to be that religion as well. You can turn away from it if you want.
SC: But also there are quite a lot of people who are, sort of, culturally Jewish. So they might do the high holy days - my partner fasts on the fasting days to be closer to her community, so there are a lot of people who do bits of it.
FL: So is that like being an Easter and Christmas Christian?
SC: You could say that, but... Now, I am being mean to Easter and Christmas Christians! But I think it’s a little more deep than that because my partner knows exactly why she is fasting on those days. She wants to be closer to her tradition and her community and her ethnic heritage and she says “all these Jewish people around the world are fasting today and I will do it with them as a symbolic thing”. So I think that when there are atheist cultural Jews they are being spiritual in their own way. That’s how I reconcile myself with my partner’s atheism. But there is a lot of caring for each other in the community and one wonderful example that I came across of this while I have been studying is that, it’s a little bit complicated, but in New Jersey, there is a community which has worked hard to set up an Erev. Now, I don’t know if your listeners will know, some of them will, but in Jewish law, on the Sabbath, there are many things you can’t do and that includes carrying a burden, which means that if you are a parent with a child, you can’t push them in the baby carriage, and it means that if you are in a wheelchair you may not be able to push yourself around, and if you are a blind person with a white cane, you may not be able to carry that. Now the laws are different within the home. You are allowed to do many more of those essential things like pushing your wheelchair within the home. And an Erev sets up an area for a Jewish community where it is their home - it’s just extended. Usually wires are put up around an area near a synagogue. And the reason this New Jersey community fought for this Erev to be put up was so that their blind Rabbi could walk to synagogue with his white cane on a Saturday, and I just think that is a fantastic example of ways to make your faith work so that it’s inclusive for the people you care about in your community and that’s real, sort of, justice in action. So that kind of thing is really exciting, that’s real ‘not putting a stumbling block before a blind person’.
FL: That’s incredible and it really shows that’s a great triumph of the human spirit there, I think.
SC: People find ways to make things work.
FL: So is that a modern loophole, a modern construction?
SC: It is a modern loophole and some people are quite annoyed that there is a modern loophole. I mean you will find very orthodox Jews who might have issues with that being a loophole, but when it can be used to serve maybe the weaker, more vulnerable or more oppressed people in your community, I think it’s a good thing for a loophole to be used for. So that’s really cool. And I think that it is an example of this mix of justice and community and family that’s really important in Judaism. So I think that, as with many religions, mixed in with some of the negative, slightly discriminatory stuff, there is a lot of positive, as we are going to find out with each of the religions we look. So that’s Judaism and disability.
FL: Speaking of those other religions, I know that we are going to move on to one of the next oldest of the Abrahamic traditions, and speak about Islam. Now Judaism is actually the only Abrahamic tradition that I have yet to cover as far as an in-depth religion but Islam and Christianity I have covered.
SC: I was going to ask when are you going to cover Judaism, because I am going to make my partner listen to it?
FL: One of the interesting things that a lot of people were really shocked whenever I put out my list of the top ten world religions is that Judaism is not even in the top 5. It’s kind of down on the list as far as adherence because, again, people forget that it’s mostly a cultural religion, it’s mostly a culture and race religion. It’s not necessarily just a religion that people can just convert to just for fun, you know. It’s not a big go out there and get people.
SC: It’s very rare to find Jewish converts because you are generally born into Judaism. There are a few but it’s unusual.
FL: Everybody always calls it one of the Big Three and it’s not even in the Big Five.
SC: But in terms of influence on other religions, it’s got quite a lot and one of the other religions that has developed from Judaism is Islam, which is one of the world’s largest religions, along with Christianity.
FL: You should have your own show. Your ability to segue is brilliant.
SC: Don’t encourage me. All I would do is sit and talk about sociology.
FL: I will subscribe. I will be your first subscriber and your most devoted fan. But please continue: Islam.
SC: So, research suggests that the concept of disability as we know it, again, is not found in the Koran - the holy book of Islam - or in the teachings of the Prophet or the imams. But instead there are concepts of disadvantage and, somewhat in common with Judaism, that there is certain recognition of some types of people, like blind and ‘lame’ people perhaps, and so on. Muslim teachings say that there is no such thing as perfection on earth, because only God is perfect and that is quite positive for disabled members of the Islamic community. They are not asked to be more perfect than they are born as or they have become. People can work towards perfection, that’s encouraged and people can come closer to God and there are lots of ways of coming towards that spiritual perfection and some of those do tie in with the physical. But it is understood that we are imperfect human beings and another interesting difference from Christianity is that Muslims don’t really have a concept of original sin. They see all creation as good, which Pagans know a lot about and that can, again, be very positive for disabled people, because if God made you a certain way then you can take some pride in that, even if it is different from other people. So Muslims aren’t expecting either physical or spiritual perfection and there are a range of beliefs about health and illness in Islam. Many Muslims would say that sickness or disability is a trial from God, to bring a person closer to the Divine. Patience in suffering can be seen as a way of working towards salvation or towards heaven, because you are having to spiritually work through some kind of suffering. So health, although it is seen as a blessing from God, doesn’t mean that illness is a punishment. It’s much more of a trial. So they do understand that the issue is complicated, I think, like a lot of the religions do. The Koran itself shows the mistreatment of disabled people to be a bad thing. There is a really interesting story about the Prophet Mohamed. A blind man asks him for teaching about God and Mohamed gets irritated and turns away, and God instantly rebukes him and says, “Who are you to stand between this man and his search for the Divine?” basically, which is really quite cool. It’s kind of the idea that all seekers of the Divine are to be supported in that search and we should not, again, put a stumbling block in front of them, which I think is really awesome. And there are also interesting exemptions from certain types of religious and community service for disabled people. So there’s an early idea, which I really like, of understanding that to reach equality you may have to do different things for different people. So the Koran says, and I have written it out, “No blame attaches to the blind, nor does blame attach to the lame, nor does blame attach to the sick, but whoever heeds the call of God and his apostle, him will he admit into gardens through which running waters flow”. So it’s the idea that you may not be able to do as much to experience your religion, so, for example, you may not be able to make pilgrimage to Mecca when you are meant to. You may not have enough money because of poverty related to disability, to do your tithing - I’m not sure that’s what they call it - to do the ‘charity giving’ pillar of Islam. But that’s recognised and it’s said that no blame is attached to you for that, as long as you do everything that you can and what you do is enough. I think that that’s definitely something that followers of other paths can learn a lot from. And, in addition, the Prophet Mohamed instructed people to offer to support disabled people as part of their charitable giving, so it doesn’t all have to be money that you give. You may want to give your time and your service to disabled people and they were specifically mentioned as a group. Now charity is an interesting one, because a lot of disabled people are concerned about charity and they point fingers at us religious types and say “charity only leads to being patronising and it’s rights that we need.” But at the same time, if we are talking about quite early societies, we are talking about 1500 years ago, when Islam emerged, the idea of rights were thought of differently and part of giving somebody rights would be giving them sustenance, support, the ability to live. Whereas now we live in a more materially focused society, most people have what they need and it’s a case of, yes, charity becomes more complicated.
FL: And a lot of people, for some reason their mindset is “if you are just giving enough to subsist, if you are giving me the sustenance to live, that’s a slap in the face. You should be giving me more.”
SC: Yeah, I think often disabled people, and I’ve heard this from a lot of people as well as having personal experience of it, there is a often the idea that disabled people should take what we are given. If I complain about a step into a shop and say “look, you’re a branch of Borders or a mulinational company, you could put a ramp in”, the attitude would be, “well, we can send somebody to look at the books for you and tell you what’s there and that’s our charity to you” and that’s not always the best approach. So charity is complicated, but in all these religious traditions, if we see it as a kind of forerunner of the modern idea of rights, we can see it a bit more positively, I think.
So, everything sounds good, so far in Islam, but as with all religions, there are some issues. Islam, like Judaism, has it’s contradictions when it comes to disability. 70% of the disabled people in the world live in developing countries and many of these are Islamic, and there is some evidence in Islamic cultures of shame and hiding around disability where family members might be hidden away. It’s more of a problem on a cultural level than a religious level, so it’s not necessarily linked with the religion, but it can become linked with the religion in countries where culture and religion are closely tied. So there is a problem there and there is much more research needed into exactly how widespread it is because some people have taken, you know, a few instances of abuse and said “this is a the whole culture” and we don’t honestly know that. And certainly with Muslim people living in this country, in the UK, I have never experienced that myself. I have seen lots of families with disabled children, including them in the family. So I think that’s a complicated one, but there is evidence to suggest that disabled people do have a very lowly position in Muslim societies and that it hasn’t changed in the same way that it might have done in some other societies. So I suppose that’s the caveat. But there is some very positive stuff there. So that’s most of what I know about Islam and disability. It’s definitely one of the religions where there need to be a lot more research on how the two connect. There is not a great deal, whereas there is lots in Judaism and Christianity.
FL: But at least it doesn’t seem to be as constricting and as focused on the idea of perfection, because, you know.
SC: No, there is a big departure from Judaism in that, yeah. There is a definitely a command from God to treat people well.
FL: That’s usually what happens as religions get older and adherents break off and form their own ideas, they start to say “well this doesn’t work very well” and they start to make those modern improvements, for a religion that I think is 3000 years old or something like that. It’s a very modern idea to think that disabled people could be just as perfect as the rest of us.
SC: Oh, completely. I mean we are talking about a religion that began in the Bronze Age and we are talking about our modern concept of disability. It’s very complicated, so yeah. And I would like to move on to Christianity.
FL: I think we should.
SC: Ooh, the interesting one. Well, this is what my PhD is on, so I could go on and on about it. Please stop me!
FL: Please do.
SC: So what I am currently looking at, I am in my first year-ish of my PhD and I am currently looking a lot at the New Testament and its representations of disability, because what I have realised is you can’t just look at the modern adherents of a religion without looking at where it came from and where they form their theology. So, the New Testament in the Bible, is quite unclear again on disability and again, there are some paradoxes. There is a lot less said about disability in the New Testament than there is directly in the Old Testament and, indeed, in the Koran. It’s very very unclear. Jesus is sometimes shown telling people off for mistreating disabled people and is sometimes shown reaching out to them, but equally there is quite a lot of focus on “disabled people must be healed” and there is this kind of... Jesus came, as represented in the Gospels, with a movement of kind of like “Now the Messiah is on Earth and because Jewish prophecy shows the Messiah healing then the Messiah in the New Testament has to be shown healing people.” But the problem with that, for modern adherents, is the potential for a “You haven’t been healed. Why haven’t you been healed? Jesus heals,” kind of approach.
FL: Gotcha. I can see that. I can see the connection. Wasn’t the examples of the people that were healed, those people wanted to be healed, though, or at least it was written that way.
SC: Most of the time, yes. I’m doing very in depth research. I’m going to have to write a paper at some point, into exactly how it’s written, because the Gospel writers are really interesting. They do a lot of kind of, reluctant writing about the people involved. They would much rather just write about Jesus, and so you get characters who sometimes have a voice but sometimes their voice is taken away, and some of the Gospel writers see disabled people in the very Jewish way and ask, “is this a punishment?” and others don’t. And so there is masses of variation and we have to remember with the Bible, something that not many Christians remember really, which is that it was formed out of communities of belief and they were already very varied communities when they started writing down stories about Jesus. So every Gospel has a different sort of theological point that it’s making, and healings and disability come into that theological point. They are considered as part of what they are trying to say.
FL: I can agree with the idea that at least from a modern persepctive, going back and reading those Gospels, reading those stories, it can really affect somebody, especially a person with a disability, a disabled person, that they think, “well, you know, there is something wrong with me, there is healing that needs to occur. I am broken in some way. I am the shattered teacup on the kitchen floor and I wish somebody would come with some glue real quick, because this I am not supposed to be this way” instead of embracing it and living your best life to your best abilities.
SC: Absolutely, and I think that’s the really good point. Living your best life and the balance of looking for your optimum health but not going beyond the balance, so that your exercise regime exhausts you because you’ve got arthritis and that kind of thing. And I think it’s to some degree that balance is missing from Christianity, because it was so focused at the beginning on healing as signs of their Messiah arriving. So that makes things complicated, and as a result we have a chequered history between Christianity and disability, especially from the middle ages onwards, where disabled people have been viewed in two main ways: some communities of people have viewed disabled people as blessed, almost as a kind of, having a direct link to the Divine because they are different and this is especially about people with mental health problems whose visions and voices might be interpreted as...
FL: And not to jump ahead to Paganism, but that has trickled down to various kinds of Pagan beliefs, especially with some diasporic traditions, again, cultural traditions that have just not reached the level of Judaism. Of course, I guess one could argue that Judaism is a tradition of a people that all are trying to go back to Israel. Sorry, I know that’s not...
SC: To a spiritual home.
FL: To a spiritual home, yes. But no, that has trickled down to a lot of those diasporic traditions of, when they seem somebody with a knobbly back or a twisted foot, or something like that, well that means that this deity has blessed them. Or this deity has done something for them. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes that does come up.
SC: And it’s an odd paradox in Christianity because it went side by side with the idea that you were literally demonised. You were being affected by the devil and Martin Luther, the great father of Protestantism, I say through my teeth, is alleged to have called disabled people “lumps of flesh without souls” and he was very very negative about disabled people and said that parents should dispose of their disabled children and so on. And there is a theory that he was, you know, taking very seriously the legends of changelings and the idea that these were demons, as he would have seen it. Taking on board anti-Pagan propaganda and applying it to disabled people, and they were just on the receiving end of that. But both of those approaches can be seen to be dehumanising. We are seeing them either as a link to the divine rather than a person, or as a demon rather than a person. And I think that modern Christianity is struggling with the paradox between the two really. In recent times there is a major cult of healing going on in Christianity, which is part of why I have decided to look at it, rather than other religions, to start with. Because I have got many friends... I personally got out of the Pentecostal tradition quite early, when I realised that there was going to be healing imposed upon me, but I have many friends who didn’t, and who literally went every Sunday, were told “you must be healed. You must be healed” and couldn’t get on with their worship. For goodness sake, they are trying to pray and they are being told “you must be healed”! They’ve got other things on their mind. And it’s very frustrating because I’ve seen people get to the bring of being suicidal over being told “God will heal you. God will heal you” and they don’t get healed. That’s, in my mind, not very responsible for a community to do. And it’s certainly not every Christian group - I have, in my research, I am finding some wonderful churches which make everything accessible, which talk about healing as a gift of God that is given to some people but we don’t claim to be able to fathom the mind of why some and not others, and to talk about all the different ways in which disability is represented in the Bible. So it’s not every Christian church, but, and I think that you are right, that there is an influence of diasporic traditions here, coming over from Pentecostal traditions in other countries. American, in particular, but also from Africa and other places, coming over to Britain - we are finding an influx of this sort of cult of healing. And it’s a problem for disabled people. It might be wonderful for other people, but it’s making a lot of us uncomfortable, so it’s an issue and I hope, again, that as much as we hope that other traditions will learn from the positive, I also hope they will learn from the negative.
FL: I hope you will allow me a small little tangent. Do you know the comedian Eddie Izzard?
SC: Oh yes! I love the comedian Eddie Izzard. “I will kill you with a tray”.
FL: Well, I remember seeing one of his bits, and this was years ago, but he went into the doctor and he had just come out as a transvestite. Now, Eddie Izzard, for those of you who for some reason do not know who he is, he is a British transvestite comedian and a transvestite is not a transexual. It’s not somebody who wants to change sexes. He is just a man who likes women, he is a man who likes to dress in women’s clothes. He also likes to have sex with women, he is not gay. He just likes to dress in women’s clothes.
SC: One of the greatest comedian of all time, too. Apart from maybe some members of Monty Python.
FL: But he had just come out as a transvestite and to live his life and wear high heels and that kind of thing. And he said he went to the doctor and he said, the doctor basically offered to fix the, he asked him what was going on and I think he said “I’m TV” or I’m something like that and they said “Oh, I’m so sorry. Would you like me to fix that?” and he’s like “No no no. Just the cough today”.
SC: It’s absolutely true. This is a bit of a tangent, but as a disabled person, it’s so funny when you walk into doctor’s office and you say, “yeah, I think I’ve got the flu. Just wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious” and they are looking at you and they are looking at you and you know they’re thinking “can I just fix your legs?” “No no, I’m fine.” It’s really funny, but it can also be a problem as well.
FL: It’s like: “No no, just the flu today. I’m good. The legs are fine”
SC: “I’m good in my wheelchair.”
FL: “They are comfortably seated right now, actually. I don’t want to walk today.”
SC: My favourite comment from doctors, which I have to be facetious with them about is they say “how long have you been in the wheelchair” and I say, “well, since about 8 o’clock this morning. I wasn’t in it during the night”. Yes, doctors. Funny. There are some who are wonderful - they just make me laugh. So, yeah, this cult of healing is interesting and something that I am going to be looking at. I’m looking generally at the experiences of disabled Christians, but I think that a lot of experiences of healing will come up and they are beginning to, in the work I am already doing. And it would be really interesting to get Christians to think a little bit more about how they frame their theology of that. Do they believe that we are all images of the Divine, as Christianity might put it? Or do they think that there is a flaw? And I think that it’s paradoxical, Christianity, so they are never going to be sure. But, yeah. It’s very interesting. So the problem of being told that you don’t want to be healed or you don’t have enough faith, that moves into other religions as well and Buddhism and Hinduism are not my research field. You may have noticed I know much more about the Abrahamic religions, because that is where I have started really, but what I do know is that this concept of guilt for your disability is relevant to religions that have a focus on karma, which Hinduism and Buddhism in slightly different ways do. And research suggests that the belief in karma helps some people, because it answers the “why me?” question and it also talks about acceptance to the will of God and dealing with your karma rather than carrying it on into another life, but research also shows that it has some negative effects and that is where you get into questions of the family honour being shamed and people having to be hidden away.
FL: Now I know that as far as Hinduism specifically, now this is just one isolated incident, and I’m sure it can’t speak for the whole of the religions, but there was a very young girl who was born with a disability. Her legs were fused together and they called her “The Mermaid Girl” over and over and over again. And they spoke about her as if she were a Goddess on Earth, a Goddess reincarnated. They kept saying that she was, and I do not remember the Goddess off-hand and I didn’t even think that I would be talking about this story today, but I am sure you all can Google it. Google “Hindu Mermaid Girl” and I am sure it will pop up, but they deified this girl, they said that she was this Goddess reincarnated. And it was interesting, because there were a lot of people that did not want this girl to have this surgery to fix the legs and she actually now has one functioning leg I think and one doesn’t work or something like that. But she can walk now, I mean, basically.
SC: So it was a fixable problem but they were discouraging the fixing.
FL: Yes. Let’s see... the Mermaid Girl born in 2002. Let’s see.. I won’t dwell on this, I can’t seem to find it right off hand. Oh here it is! From March 2008. 8 year old girl. Her legs were fused together. Shilo Peppen, and I am sure I am mispronouncing that, she is known as the Mermaid Girl. But yes, she was celebrated as a reincarnated deity that she, it doesn’t say which deity, but she was celebrated as a reincarnated deity and it was a very controversial thing in the Hindu community if they should even allow her to have this surgery, so I don’t know if that speaks to the entire community and I don’t know about disabilities in general. Maybe you have to have a disability that looks like a god in some instances.
SC: Possibly, yeah. I mean, the research that I have read, and again, it’s a little bit under-researched, which is why I am in this area, and I may look at Hinduism next, but the research I have read says that it can cause some issues because there’s blame attached to some extent, and what I have read is that that is not how karma is intended. You are not supposed to feel guilt. You are more supposed to feel working towards the next thing. But some people take it on as “I did this to myself in a previous life” and it leads us into victim blaming and things that are problematic for me personally, but I probably need to read a lot more about it and find the positive side.
FL: And this can be an entire tangent of itself. And I think that Velma and I are going to be doing an episode of Inciting a BrewHaHa on this topic but the idea that, this western notion of karma, that has gotten so wildly out of control, but this whole idea that “oh, you were raped, that must be something that you deserved, that you wanted, you drew that to you.” It is the sick fusion of this “law of attraction”, that I am sure you have heard my show on. I have my own issues with the “law of attraction”.
SC: I have issues with the “law of attraction” since my mother had “The Secret” on her bookshelf and I picked it up and went “What?!”
FL: But it’s the sick fusion of this “law of attraction” and idea of “karma” which doesn’t look a thing like any sort of historical version of karma out there. But this idea that you were raped or you are disabled or you are whatever because you have drawn this to yourself, you want to be this way, you wanted that to happen. And it’s sick and I hope that it stops soon, but that’s a completely different tangent and a completely different show.
SC: No no, it’s relevant because it leads me into kind of talking about, well, I live in the UK and in what we almost term a post-Christian society and I am quite interested in how modern life among people who have either rejected religion or it’s not an enormous part of their life, how that is looking at disability, but you have a really good point. I was listening to Saturn Darkhope when she was talking about some of her health problems.
FL: Pennies in the Well.
SC: Yeah, wonderful, wonderful podcast. And she was talking about her realisation of how difficult it is when you literally can’t move. How do you get to the doctor’s office if you can’t drive? And how do you get food from the kitchen? And I think you have to live the life of a disabled person or someone with a chronic illness to understand that between the impairment itself, which is difficult enough, and the social oppression, this is not something you would want to bring upon yourself and to encourage someone to blame themselves is only adding another layer of oppression that is only going to make things worse for them, I think. So, it’s complicated.
FL: Was there any more about Christianity that we needed to speak about?
SC: No, I think that’s pretty much most of it. I could go on for hours, but it would be restating the same stuff. But when I have gone and done my very specific research, I will come back and tell you more!
FL: I can’t wait. I am already excited about your second visit to the Riot. So let’s go ahead and get into Paganism. What has your research shown about Paganism? Is there a difference between how “ancient Pagans” because you know there is debate as to what an “ancient Pagan” would have been considered, but you know, “Ancient Pagans” versus “Modern Pagans” and all of the same.
SC: It’s so difficult doing any research into Paganism on an academic level, firstly because very little is being done, which definitely needs to change. Secondly because there are so many traditions, and a Wiccan tradition may be different from a Druid tradition for example.
FL: Very true.
SC: ...in how it looks at things and, as you say, Ancient Pagans in perhaps the Roman world or the Greek world could have thought something entirely different again because there are cultural things there that we don’t have.
FL: Just to take an example from Hellenic theology, you know, they had Gods. They had very important principle deities that were lame. Hephestus was a lame God and he was still one of the chief twelve.
SC: And, of course, there is quite an association in Greek culture with blind seers and so on, so there are much more complex ideas, I think, in Greek society. The problem with trying to research early Greek and Roman society is generally that Christian propaganda has messed most of it up and we are not sure about things like, for example, the Christians of earlier days, in particular, would like to have said that there was no charity before Christianity and we know that’s not true. But there was a different kind of giving charity and it was mixed in with a level of responsibility, so don’t support somebody to the point where they can’t support themselves, which is probably quite a sensible thing. It’s not quite such a strong Christian belief, and so maybe they didn’t understand how that was a different form of charity. So there’s not an awful lot to say about the ancients except that they clearly had concepts of disability, they clearly had disabled people, but again, we don’t know how they categorised them, we don’t know if they were categorised in the same way as people are categorised today. They are probably not. There probably wasn’t this umbrella term of “disability” as we have seen with all these and religions, which probably meant that, to some extent, it was maybe more of a focus on who you were as a person, we can hope, especially with having lame Gods and blind seers, we can only hope. I would like to think that positively about it. But what we do know is our idea of the normal is very very recent and the ancient Greeks were much more interested in the ideal, which is something that everyone aspired to, but would be unlikely to meet. So you get the ideal of the Greek athlete and so on and the ideal of being like the Gods and so on. So I think there was from that, the research seems to suggest that there was more understanding that everybody would be imperfect, a bit like we were saying with Islam and nobody would meet this ideal. But people would have different gifts. So somebody might be physically far from this ideal, unlike, say, an Olympian athlete, but they might be spiritually very close to it. So, I think disability was seen in a more complex and maybe more interesting way in a lot of ways, than our very Christianised society sees it in very dualistic terms. You are either disabled or you’re not. I think it was probably much more interesting than that. But that’s really all I can say on the ancient Pagans, but there is so much interesting stuff in modern Paganism.
FL: So many interesting topics to talk about.
SC: Again because of all the different paths and, I mean, in terms of Wicca and Witchcraft, you’ve got the tradition of herb lore and of healing people and the wonderful tradition of people who couldn’t afford doctors would go to the wise woman who knew about herbs and all of that is quite closely mixed in with Witchcraft, which is very positive. And there are some wonderful philosophies within the umbrella movement like taking responsibility for your own health, which I am finding really positive at the moment. It moves us away from this dualistic, slightly more Christian idea that your body is not important because you are going to move onto another plane and says, “well, your body is a gift from either the Earth or from the Divine and you should look after it.” But that probably doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect or if there is even an idea of perfect, which, you know, is socially constructed anyway. So I think there is some really healthy and interesting stuff in Paganism. But, like I’ve said, it is really hard to be specific about an umbrella group. But there are some cautions that I have read. And I think you have to be careful with cautions, again because we don’t know how much of it is Christian propaganda or generally anti-Pagan propaganda - but there are writers who are concerned about Eastern influenced practices which, as we have said, mess up the idea of Karma and, even more than that, talk about what you attract to yourself. But on the other side of that, there are writers who have said that there is an awful lot of wisdom and spiritual healing in those traditions that can be very positive for people. So again it’s a case of looking for balance and cautioning a religion that is quite new not to try and fit people into a mold of something that is actually socially constructed. So being careful as adherents of, I suppose, any faith to look carefully at what ideas about disability we have that are society and are not positive and to look instead at what is the best of all those religions, what is justice focused, what is community focused, what doesn’t expect people to be perfect, but instead expects people to make the most of who they are. And I think Paganism, well it has a really chance to achieve that, and that’s really exciting about a fairly new religion.
FL: I did want to speak about a couple of points specifically, and I touched on them at the very beginning of the show, when I introduced you, about Paganism because this is a Pagan podcast, it is towards a Pagan audience and that’s really I want to speak to issues that concern them, plus, you know, on episode 53 and obviously all over my blog I have really been pushing Project Pagan Enough and the movement that I have brought about to help bring some sort of tolerance to the Pagan community where it seems that we are, kind of, on some kind of spiral, and I am not sure it’s a spiral back into sanity, or a spiral out into already splitting off from whatever minor group that we have established for ourselves. But it is Pagan Values Blogging and Podcasting Month, and one of your recent posts on your amazing blog “Lighting my Candle”, which is lightingmycandle.blogspot.com .
SC: It’s exceptionally new, but yeah.
FL: Well, you posted on June 20th and one thing that you said was that: “ I've read a lot about health in Pagan books recently that worries me - reminiscent of the victim-blaming, illness-and-impairment-confusing, discriminatory discourses of Christianity that I've spent many years working on bringing out into the light. On the one hand, it shocks and upsets me that many of the same things are present in Paganism, despite its open-minded stance towards all kinds of justice issues, and despite its valuing of the body that is so different from the Christian approach. On the other hand, I know that Pagans, like members of every other religion and none, are social and socialized creatures, who are just as capable of believing negative social messages about disability as anyone else. Additionally, we all want to be healthy. And if we're the average person, we never have to think much about disability, beyond the vague awareness that we'll probably get old one day, and we rarely think about the 20% of people who live with disability right now, at whatever age they are. I think that's a normal response to disability, and it makes sense. It still makes me sad to hear such negative things about the diversity of human bodies from a body-honouring religion, though.” Something I wanted to ask. There are some very positive things about being Pagan and accepting our disabled brothers and sisters. There are some very positive things that can happen. We can grow as a community. We can understand more people. We can be those tolerant Pagans we claim to be. We can open our eyes. There’s wonderful things that can happen. But there are some very negative things that I have seen recently and there was a lovely blog post put out by Sarah, the Witch of Forest Grove and her website is witchofforestgrove.com . She put out a blog on witchofforestgrove.com recently talking about how we as modern Pagans seem to be too accepting of various brands of crazy and usually when I say “brands of crazy” it’s a joke to somebody’s religion. Your religion is your “brand of crazy”, because when we are talking to invisible people in the sky, we all sound a little crazy. But when I say personal brand of crazy here, I am talking about, you know, somebody’s personal mental illness, or, at least, personal quirks and we have gotten so used to, in the modern Pagan community, hearing somebody say something to the effect of “I was meditating and the Goddess came to me in corporeal form and she handed me this tool” or “I went and, you know, did X, Y and Z and fell into a bunch of fairies and they flitted me off to Never Never Land” We hear such crazy stories sometimes from people and we are so used to people having such odd quirks. “No, I can’t touch stones because if I do, things will happen to me”. “I cannot imbibe this herb because terrible things will happen to my energy or I will go crazy or I will rule the world or I’ll become High Mugwump of the Stupid Moonflower Clan” or whatever. I mean, there are so many different kinds of things that we hear and that we ingest from members of the Pagan community that when it comes time to recognise that somebody is in need of mental help, that we kind of ignore that or we make excuses for it, or we say, “oh no, that’s just them being magical, that’s just whatever” and I did want to get your opinion as to the importance of distinguishing the positive from the negative and really highlight the idea that we need to be more willing to call out one another’s “crazy” as crazy and not as just another quirk of you being a witchy Pagan person.
SC: Yeah. I mean, I think that the difficulty there is moving straight into some of the complexities of disability without solving the more black and white issues, if that makes sense. If we are talking about religions which, for one reason or another, whether it’s, you know, a belief in you draw energy to yourself and in that way you have made yourself disabled or that your body reflects punishment from the divine, if we are talking about religions, some, however minority opinion they are, some of the concepts of that religion are not helpful to disabled people. I think the first thing to do is to look at those and Paganism is very big on taking responsibility, and I think taking responsibility for our attitudes towards others is sort of the first step. I think coming out of that will be taking responsibility for our friends in community who have issues and more complex things like that. Not being a Pagan or certainly not being an experienced Pagan, it’s difficult to say sort of what kinds of things would be good answers to those more complex issues, but I think in the same way as a religion like Judaism has come together around protecting, supporting, empowering people, doing all those good things, I think religious communities can do that, can support people, can make space for people with unusual views because, remember, people with mental health problems may have unusual views, but they are still people, they still have the right to look for their spiritual path. They are still connected to the Divine, even if they express that in a very odd way. Does that make sense?
FL: Yes, it does. I did want to quickly interject. This is the quote from the original article by Sarah, because she makes her point so much better than I could make her point for her. She says: “Sometimes the (online and physical) Pagan Community is too accepting and accommodating of everyone’s own personal level of crazy. Because we are on the fringe, many think we have to accept anyone who identifies as one of us and take them as they come. Sometimes we are too afraid to tell someone they are crazy (this is especially hard to do when the person in question is in a leadership role). After all, who is a Pagan (believing in many gods, spirits, and magic) to tell someone they’re nuts or are taking something too far? But when no one calls a stop or calls bullshit, then things do get taken too far and people with real mental illnesses end up being accepted as sane. This never ends well. Have you ever watched an untreated schizophrenic, bipolar, or someone with a delusional disorder try to run a group? I have and I can tell you it is not a pretty sight. If people believe them in the beginning, they certainly won’t by the end, and by then it’s too late to do the right thing in an amicable way. The mentally ill person will have a breakdown when they feel their delusions are being attacked. They will threaten and drive everyone away who questions them, sometimes even trying to physically hurt, verbally assault, or magically attack people they once treated as friends and family.” And I think that she highlights a very important aspect of I think, really, society’s idea of disability in general, but I think the Pagan community specifically. Two things: One, it’s fairly easy to tell that if you are in a wheelchair or you are carrying a walking stick or you have a hearing aid, it’s fairly easy to tell you have X, Y and Z disability. You have this physical impairment, but a mental illness is so much harder for people to see, because you normally can’t see it. Usually it does not manifest itself in somebody in filthy sweaty clothes on the side of the street pulling their hair out and screaming about peanuts and elephants. It’s usually not that stereotype. So it’s much harder to see and it’s much harder to tell and once you do see it, people in generally typically do not want to acknowledge it.
SC: Certainly in the beginning, yes.
FL: But it also goes to stress a point that, you know, it’s kind of like the old Christian adage, why, whenever this prophet in the Bible spoke to God, he was a prophet, but when I hear the voice of God, I am crazy? And, there are a lot of theological ideas as to what makes a prophet and what makes somebody just crazy, but we do need to accept that there are people who do actually have chemical imbalances or do actually have something that has made them delusional. There are people that have schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder and various kinds of various mental illnesses that, for some, these kinds of things, saying that they went off and played in Fairyland, sometimes that is an aspect of their mental illness and when somebody has taken that too far, like she says, when somebody is going to a level that is unhealthy, I think it’s just important that we, as Pagans, or we as responsible adults, even, acknowledge that and attempt to help somebody. But she also makes the point, later on, and I have said this time and time again, realize that you do not want this to be the hill you want to die on, I mean, do not make this end all, be all argument for you. If this person does not want help, recognise that, bless them and move on, but I think that it is at least important to begin to acknowledge the “crazy” in the Pagan community.
SC: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things to do with disability that is a current issue for Paganism. But as you said, responsibility, looking after people that you care about and not in such a way that it will take over your life, that’s important, but saying to someone that you are close to, “have you thought about, that you might not be 100% well?” and that kind of thing. But it’s also really important as part of balance and responsibility to understand that a lot of people have mental health problems. I am bipolar and I am doing a PhD and I haven’t gone too crazy recently, although I have in the past! It is possible for everybody to take responsibility for their health, including people with mental health problems and the way that I take responsibility for my mental health problems is by being on medication that some days I would rather not be taking because I would rather have some of the grander experiences that one can have when one is manic. Talk about communing with the Divine. It’s brilliant. But you do. You think about taking responsibility and I think that paganism has a fantastic philosophy for that, for looking after yourself and, as you said earlier, being the best version of you that you can be... That sounds very American, I don’t like saying it!
FL: It’s very Oprah. Living your best life.
SC: But that’s exactly the point. Not trying to be something that you are not. Not trying to be something that you were not created to be, or, from whatever viewpoint you come, you weren’t designed to be genetically, but, instead, fulfulling your potential. And I think it’s all about balance. And yes, I think the Pagan community has some issues with how to work out that balance in practice, because if you are talking to somebody who has mental health problems and they don’t want to admit that, that’s very very complicated and there are a lot of complex issues there and I would suggest for anybody in that situation to do some reading and talk to some people who know about it, even people who have been through it and have mental health problems themselves or have family with it as a first step. And then it’s going to be down to each individual situation, I think, but your view of taking responsibility and community, I think those are the key things.
FL: Well, I completely agree. This has been, one incredible interview, I must say. I really could listen to you go on all day. This has been one of the most fascinating things. And I will say, you have, it’s good that I have been able rein myself in and you as well, because I think that we could, there are so many topics that we have covered today. We could make each of those shows. I mean, the ideas of labelling and what a label does and the interplay between why we as Pagans react to various things that we do in conjunction with the reasons why we turned away from Christianity, or turned away from whatever religion we did. I mean there are so many topics that were brought up, so I do hope that you will, Ms. soon to be Dr. Sophia Catherine...
SC: In a few years!
FL: I do hope that you will consider coming back and any time you have any sort of paper or any idea to ever present, that is remotely tangentially related to the show, I do hope that you will at least consider coming on and talking about it with me.
SC: I will. Certainly. It’s been an incredible honour to come on the show. When you said you’d like me to, I was somewhat blown over.
FL: Oh gosh, I’m the one who is honoured, because to have somebody with your specialities and with your unique perspective on the show, I think is going to open a lot of eyes. I think is going to open a lot of doorways as well to people in the Pagan communities to begin to have these conversations, to begin to be a lot more honest with themselves, to be a lot more honest with others. And I think it’s always nice to have the perspective of what other religions do and to realise that these other religions don’t have their act together as much as we try to give them credit for.
SC: They may have solved one problem and created another. You can see this happening all the way through.
FL: Or that there are some positive aspects to some of these religions. I mean there are a lot of people in the Pagan community who really want to vilify Christianity and all Christians in general, but there were some really positive aspects of that religion that you spoke about and the ideas of healing and about the promoting of health and equality and all of that, so I think it is important to highlight the positive.
SC: Totally. And I think the exciting thing for Paganism is the way that you are able to draw on other paths that speak wisdom to you and I think studying religion is one of the most wonderful ways to do that because it opens your eyes to the way people have linked to the Divine.
FL: I kind of want to round out the interview. Do you have any tips for anybody and, I kinda mean this as tongue and cheek, do you have any tips for anybody as far as how to treat a disabled person and how not to treat a disabled person?
SC: I should have done one of your lists of tips, shouldn’t I? In your inimitable style! You’ve put me on the spot now. Tips...
FL: When people come up to you, what is the most annoying thing they say to you?
SC: Do you know what? The most annoying thing is nothing discriminatory. It’s stupid jokes about my wheelchair. “Do you have a licence for that?” “You should put racing stripes on that”, “Don’t run over my feet now, will you?” People who think that’s the funniest thing they have ever said and that I’ve never heard it before. I think the reason that’s annoying is that people think they are being at ease with it, but all they are doing is highlighting the fact that they are not at ease with it. And really, just look at the person - and it’s really American to say “look at the person, not the disability” and it’s not usually a route that I would take, because I think you’ve got to understand that disabled people are different and in order to help us achieve equality, we have got to be treated differently. But it’s also really important to be aware that there is a person in the wheelchair. You know, talk to them.
FL: I’m so sorry. I know that we are kind of being a bit funny right now, but I did want to highlight what you just said. In order to achieve equality, we have to be treated differently. Rioters, I hope that you are listening to this because it really goes back to everything we’ve talked about today and really everything that I talk about typically in general is that, if you are trying to have a cookie cutter response to every situation and every person, you’re not realising that person as a whole. You are not taking a look at the entire situation, you are not looking at both sides of the issue and you have to realise that this person, yes, may be disabled, but they are also a person. But you also have to realise...
SC: They are also disabled.
FL: Yes, they are not going to go have a potato sack race with somebody who is in a wheelchair, at least not a conventional potato sack race.
SC: I think that’s the reason... When I wrote the post that you quoted from, I was having a bit of a bad day with Paganism. I am having a better day today. But I think that’s part of what’s been frustrating me. It’s been things like, I’ve come across some wonderful Pagan groups recently and I hope to go to their rituals, and some of them are so keen to, you know, they are moving rituals because they have disabled members and they want them to be able to walk from the car park, and all sorts of wonderful things. But I have also been reading, you know, posts by people saying “Well, disabled people have to take responsibility for their own disabilities.” And I am saying “What about the fact that society is disabling them and your behaviour is keeping them out of your group? What about you taking responsibility for your behaviour towards them?” And what about about the balance between all of us taking responsibility? And I think that principle of treating people differently but treating them equally is really important. It’s important to so many things. It’s important to the study of religion and relating to other people, but it’s really important with disabled people because it’s very easy to say “You should treat everyone the same”. For example, I am not working at the moment, I’m studying, although I do a little bit of teaching - but I used to be a teacher, and I used to ask permission to leave work early because I get very tired. And the fuss it would create in the staff room when I would be allowed to leave earlier than other teachers, because I was getting “special treatment”... And it wasn’t special treatment, it was treating me differently so that I could be equal, so that I could teach as well as the other teachers. And that kind of principle frustrates and confuses people at first who haven’t experienced it and I completely understand that and I make lots of room for that, but think about it when you are designing your rituals or you are having a picnic for your pagan group. Think about little things, especially if you already know you’ve got disabled people coming along. But if you get an enquiry from a disabled person, saying “I’d like to come and I am in a wheelchair and you are on the top of a hill and I won’t get it up there,” think about... There are so many places where you could do your ritual. I mean, I live near the Peak District with masses and masses of outdoor space, and some of the groups I have contacted seem to think that their space on that hill is the only one that they can use, in the whole of 100 miles of countryside! So while I understand that it’s difficult because, you know, there are sacred sites and there are some things where you can’t make compromises, and it’s the same in Christianity, we say there are old buildings and it’s difficult, there are always ways that you can do some things.
FL: I do have a quick question from the other side of we should be more mindful of our disabled brothers and sisters and if they want to be involved or if this is a group that they would like to come and attend and if they have made that known, obviously, if somebody says,”well, we are going to be out on X Hill and do Y ritual. Anybody who wants to come can come” and if that disabled person has not called ahead and said “Hey, I think I want to come. Is there any possibility that we can go”. If they don’t know, they obviously can’t correct it.
SC:Nothing can be done there, I agree.
FL: But I do want to talk briefly or touch on quickly, from the disabled person’s perspective, I mean, we did see, it’s not quite a disability but it is a difference and, to go back to achieve equality we have to be treated differently, recently I am sure you heard the news about what happened at PantheaCon this past year in California, where there were several male-to-female transgender women who were not allowed to be in a Dianic ritual. And I just want you to speak very quickly about what would you say to a disabled person, a disabled Pagan that wants to be part of a ritual but these people, for whatever reason, the people putting on the ritual are saying “we just want people that can stand on two feet” or, if nothing else, they say “you can be a part of it but we must be in this sacred location on the edge of this waterfall on top of this hill”. I mean what would you say to people that are faced with that situation?
SC: I think it depends on the situation, once again. I am such a compromise type! I think if it’s a group that, you know, really wants to go to a sacred site that is very hard to get to and all their other rituals are somewhere accessible then I wouldn’t begrudge them that at all. Let them go out to their sacred site and I will do something at home at the same time and that’s great, if, you know, generally they are thinking about it. There are some situations you can’t do anything about. Nature is not very accessible. I’d like to have words with God about this! And also, the builders of some of these sacred sites. I mean, putting steps in, for goodness sake! There is this beautiful church near me with a sacred site on the place where it was built and there are steps carved into the rocks done by the Ancients. It’s irritating.
FL: How dare those Ancients not put in a wheelchair ramp!
SC: Yes, ancient Celts, evil people. So there are some rituals and some things that you will never be able to participate in. I will probably never be able to run a marathon even in my wheelchair. I will get too tired and I accept that. And I think that as long as a group is making efforts to come towards you, you can come towards them and you can compromise as well. This can be a two-way responsibility community situation. But if I contacted a group and they said “no, the only people who are allowed to participate in our circle are the physically perfect because we believe that everybody else is in some way cursed,” I wouldn’t want to be involved with them, and I am really surprised if any disabled person would. It’s a bit like how I wouldn’t go to any church that doesn’t welcome gay and lesbian people, because why would I? So I think most people are going to be sensible and say, “you know what? You don’t want me? There are plenty of other places I can go where they will recognise my gifts and I’ll be a part of things”.
FL: I’m a little amused by it and it also makes me very sad in the very good example of what you just brought up, going to a church as a gay or lesbian person and, gosh, one of the big things that they were dealing with in California was all of these churches saying, “well, we will be forced to perform gay marriages” and all of that.
SC: Because all I want is to marry my partner in a church that hates me!
FL: Right, and I do wonder how far, and I can take it to this example and I am sure you could put it in a disabled person’s viewpoint, but I do hear sometimes where a gay couple or lesbian couple or whatever couple is suing a church because they did not allow them to marry there and I think “what are you suing them for? There is another church just down the road that will let you marry. If they do not want to marry you, why do you want to be there or why do you want to drag this on? Why would you not just want to get over it and go to the church that will let you?”
SC: It’s such a complicated issue. I happen to know a bit about this because one of my other activist things is promoting LGBT rights in the Christian community and I do have some friends, I am not one of these people, but I do have some friends who go to churches where they are specifically told they are not welcome and they feel that they are sort of trying to change them through exposure, I think. They feel like the more they will see that they are a normal couple, who do normal things and watch LOST on a Saturday night, go to the pub on a Tuesday evening and have an ordinary life, rather than this sexually deviant group, you know, that does awful things, that they’ll change things. Now, is that naive? Probably...
FL: But to have the mentality that I am going to try to change you by taking you to court and suing you.
SC: I think the suing you is probably counter productive.
FL: Again, to go back to the in-group/out-group dynamic of you’re trying to victimise a majority and that’s just not going to happen but it will add to the Christian idea of “all of these people are out to get us and the devil is out to get you” and all of that. All you are going to do is reinforce the negative stereotype of you and whatever group it is that you are.
SC: But having said that, when you move it into disability, a lot of disabled people have found that the only way to achieve their rights against multinational corporations that refuse to put in ramps or refuse to allow them in with their guide dogs, seeing eye dogs I think they’re called in America, and so on, is to take them to court. And I think that when you are talking about multinationals and big capitalist institutions, it’s a slightly different thing. And I did sue a bus company when I fell off their bus ramp because they had let it out of the garage in a faulty condition. And I did win, not very much money, but the principle was upheld. And lo and behold! All the buses on that route were changed to new buses. And sometimes suing people has a knock-on effect for other people. I would only ever do it when I thought that it would help other people.
FL: But I think that there is a difference between like a social right of marriage and then the civil liberty of being able to board a public bus on your wheelchair. There is a difference. While we can talk about various kinds of minorities, not all minorities are the same. Not all minority issues are the same.
SC: So yeah, it’s interesting but I personally wouldn’t belong to a religious group that didn’t think I belonged there because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on being in touch with God. Some people might be able to, but I would find it difficult.
FL: So Ms. Sophia, I cannot tell you how much I have appreciated this interview. It’s gone on a little longer than I am sure everybody wants to listen to, but I could talk about sociology and religion all day, every day, all day. It’s my favourite topic. It’s my favourite thing to talk about which is why I have both sociology and religion topics on all of my shows. It’s my favourite thing. If people would like to get to know a little bit more about the great wise one that is Sophia Catherine, where can people go to get in touch with you, where can people go to read more of your work?
SC: Well, if you want to read the blog that you were talking about, which is more about my spiritual journey than disability rights, but disability rights, as you have noticed, come up, that is at lightingmycandle.blogspot.com but if you would like to look at my academic research, I will pass on for you for the show notes, the link to my academic blog, which is kind of my musings on things that I am reading and will soon become about the interviews that I am doing as far as that’s allowed and so on. And I am on twitter as @SophiaCandle and that’s all one word.
FL: So Rioters, everybody needs to go follow @SophiaCandle . She is wise and she is full of fire so there is a wonderful reason why I like you.
SC: At the moment all I am tweeting about is my new cats. They don’t want to do anything except live behind the sofa. I have adopted them from a shelter.
FL: That is ok and I love that you adopted a disabled cat as well.
SC: Yes, I did. I went there looking for one cat and my partner persuaded me that we could probably cope with two. We will see if we really have the space. We do, but I was nervous. But I couldn’t leave the disabled one there, so I have a three-legged cat called Pythagoras, which is a joke but not everybody’s getting it. You can think about it.
FL: Well, I did a bad thing. My partner is a vet and he’s all about the various kinds of breeds and so we actually did get our dog from a breeder but she’s still cute.
SC: She’s adorable! I’m loving this. I have always liked pugs but maybe I could get into pomeranians.
FL : Well, Sophia, I do want to thank you so much for your time. I know it’s getting late there. It’s not even noon here yet.
SC: It’s 5 something here so I must go find some dinner.
FL: You must go and find some dinner and I must go. We must go.
SC: Thank you so much for the interview. It’s been so cool. You made me spend this week thinking about this and it’s so interesting and useful.
FL: Well I am so glad that you were able to do it and do the show in timely fashion. Rioters, you can take a look at the show notes and all of my nearly daily doses of Riot at incitingariot.com , you can follow the riot by going to the left, scrolling a little bit down and clicking the follow link underneath the heading “rioters” that will add the blog to your RSS feed, your blog grabber. You can go to itunes and give a lovely review of yours truly if you really want to. You can rate and review the show. You can also subscribe to the show. If you have already subscribed, that doesn’t mean you have to stop subscribing. You can go to a friend’s computer and subscribe. You can go to your partner’s computer and subscribe. If you have access to itunes at work, subscribe there! The more subscribers, the higher the show ranks. Yay! Also, if you would like, you may vote for the show once each month on podcastalley.com under the religion and spirituality section. I tend to fight it out for the number 1 spot between my good friend Velma Nightshade and the amazing folks over at the Wigglian Way so right now I don’t know if we are in a three-way tie but we were, but I think that Velma is taking the lead for the month of June, which I am sure she will not let me live down but I did beat her out last month for the number 1 spot, so that’s ok. You can also tweet me. You can join the twitter riot. That is twitter.com/incitingariot that is @incitingariot . Also, I am now on the Facebook. I have joined the Crackbook community. Unfortunately you can’t find me under, you know, Inciting a Riot also has a fan page so you can search for Inciting a Riot. You will see a little picture of the Mrs. Oddly Rioter doll that was made for me that is the icon for it. You can like the Inciting a Riot page. It’s only been up for a couple of days and it’s already 50-something likers, but you can find me. I am Firelyte, all one word, which my name is not actually all one word but it’s Firelyte Rioter is my first and last name on Facebook, so if you would like to friend me, I accept all friends. I like friends. Yay friends! So you can search for me Firelyte Rioter, I know it’s kind of silly but I’m there. You can also like Inciting a Riot, and just because I am not online enough, I have started an Etsy shop. It is Firelyte.etsy.com I have put up some paintings and some artwork and things on there. No prints yet, just original work so the cost does reflect the fact that it is an original piece and not just a print. But I will probably be doing prints soon. Anyways, that is all the ways that you can find me and vote for me and rank me and subscribe and follow me and all of that. So I will leave you. Once again, thank you so much Sophia, it has been an absolute pleasure. Until next time Rioters, I’ve gotta go. But as always, I will leave you with: love and light, Fire Lyte.