Do you think that being deaf makes it more difficult to follow a “traditional” path or does it allow for a more creative flow?
Hmmm… good question, for which there is no easy answer. It’s difficult to come up with one general response, because like most communities, the Deaf Community is diverse – while its members may share the common characteristic of being deaf, they can vary widely in their backgrounds, their education, their skills and abilities, etc. Thus I think the answer to this question really depends on the individual. There are some deaf individuals who do in fact follow a traditional path, while others prefer to strike out on their own
First of all, I think there is a trend in general within the Pagan Community that is leaning away from strict adherence to traditional paths of Paganism. I’m seeing more and more Pagans who are describing themselves as “eclectic” and showing an interest in the blending of various paths, as opposed to labeling themselves as being strictly Wiccan, Druid, Shaman, Asatru, or whatever. Even for myself, while my formal training was Wiccan and I consider myself such, I do hold a strong interest in other paths such as Druidism, Shamanism, Heathenism, etc. Furthermore, within the Wiccan path I see less and less emphasis on the following of specific traditions, such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Strega, Dianic, or whatever. This is not to say that such traditions no longer exist, or that there are no covens training their students in such traditions… certainly there are. But I think there is a greater freedom to explore different paths and traditions than perhaps existed twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. To begin with, there are a lot more resources and a lot more information available to the general public today than there was back then. There’s a whole library of books to choose from and of course, there’s the internet… which has greatly impacted on the Pagan Community and helped to change the whole dynamics of the community over the last ten to fifteen years.
The internet has been one of the best things to happen to the Deaf Community in terms of making both information and communication more accessible to us. And for those Deaf individuals who desire to explore Paganism, it gives us a way to do so that didn’t exist in the past. For example, Deaf individuals can now study in one of the many on-line “witch schools” that have popped up all over the internet, and participate in various e-groups, chatrooms, and so forth. Even I myself have taken advantage of some of these on-line programs to further my own study of different topics within Paganism. However, the quality of such programs can vary widely… and they do have their limitations. I think there are some dangers inherent with becoming strictly a “CyberPagan.” The internet can be a great thing, but if you are depending on it totally for your study and practice of the Pagan Path, then you’re missing out. It’s gotta be balanced with some real-life experience, which means getting out there and interacting with others on a similar path.
This is where it gets tricky for Deaf Pagans. Even if there is a coven or group in your area that practices the particular path that you’re interested in and is taking on new members/students, the odds are that it probably isn’t accessible. I’ve been practicing the Craft for close to thirty years now, and I’ve never come across a Deaf coven. Even those that are accessible to the Deaf are far and few between. I am aware of one in Tennessee (OldeForest) and I’m sure there are others that I am not aware of, but overall trying to find a coven, circle, or group that is able to provide the communication access and the understanding necessary to work successfully with a Deaf member is a big challenge.
In my own experience, most of the deaf individuals I have met who practice or at least study Paganism tend to come from hearing backgrounds (such as being late deafened, coming from hearing families, attended hearing schools, or something along these lines) and/or have strong literacy skills and thus the ability to master English. This is important, because generally there is a lot of reading involved when it comes to studying Paganism… and even more so if you’re studying as a solitary or have limited access to Pagan groups. It’s important to recognize this fact, because for many Deaf individuals English is in fact their second language, and they may not be fluent in it. Thus, they may not have the competency to be able to fully comprehend what they are reading. There have been many times when I have had to translate into American Sign Language some complex topic in Paganism in order for a Deaf individual to fully grasp its meaning.
This is what really worries me – we seem to be in a time when we are already seeing a flux of “do-it-yourself witches” who are basically the products of reading one or two books and researching the web. Such individuals often have had minimal, if any real contact or training with a flesh and blood Pagan Elder to help explain concepts and provide the wisdom and guidance that can make all the difference in a person’s full understanding and appreciation of the deeper aspects of our path. So keeping this in mind, how can we truly expect a Deaf person, with the added language and communication challenges, to do any better?
So yes… I do think it is more difficult. On the other hand, in some ways I also think it’s easier. There is a certain level of “spiritualness” that exists in being Deaf that I think lends itself very well to the whole concept of Paganism. I see a lot of parallelisms between Deafhood and Paganism, and it is this very thing that fascinates me and which I hope to study and write about more in the future. I think both are very “experiential” – they base their existence upon what one experiences, and those experiences often serve as the basis for what one thinks, feels, believes, and practices. We often talk within the Pagan Community about “that which cannot be told” – not because it’s necessarily some big secret… but because the experiences defies any true description in mere words. By the same token, to try and describe Deaf in mere words is equally challenging - it’s something that you have to experience to fully understand.
I do think that for this reason, it is easier for Deaf people to tap into that “inner source” and use it as the basis for an exploration of their own spirituality. That exploration may or may not include Paganism. But when it does, I do think that it takes on its own special traits, fueled by those experiences. And yes, I do think Deaf people are a creative bunch who will channel that creativity into how they practice their spirituality. Certainly for myself my practice of Paganism is going to be somewhat different from what my hearing counterparts practice. I think Deaf Paganism is a tradition unto itself.
The Deaf Community is relatively small, as is the Pagan Community. Have you been able to reach out to bring both communities together, and if so, how?
I have always considered a large part of my own spiritual calling to be the bridging of these two communities. I identify myself as both… I’m Deaf, and I’m Pagan. Both communities are important to me, and as such I feel it’s important to help them to better understand each other.
I’ve always been a pretty outspoken Deaf individual who didn’t shy away from educating people about deafness/Deafhood, and I have been doing that pretty much from day one. When I first moved to Madison and began getting involved in the Pagan Community, several of my fellow Pagans took sign language classes in order to better communicate with me – a few of them even went on to become interpreters, or at least to become pretty fluent in the language. I was the first Deaf person in the Madison Pagan Community to seriously study the Pagan Path. I recall back in around 1983 or thereabouts I attended a presentation given by well known Pagan leader Starhawk, author of the classic publication “The Spiral Dance.” She actually had an interpreter up on the stage next to her during her presentation, for which I shall always be forever grateful. Afterwards, we held a large public ritual with over one hundred people present. During the ritual, Starhawk started leading a chant: “the earth, the water, the fire, and the air… return, return, return.” My interpreter and I started signing it, and then the next thing I knew everyone in the circle, including Starhawk herself, began copying our hand movements and there were over one hundred people signing this chant. That was a really powerful and moving experience. I then saw Starhawk again several years later at a Pagan conference, and she asked me to teach the signs for that chant again at the opening ritual. I had several people tell me afterwards that was one of the big highlights of the conference.
For most of my Pagan life I thought I was the only Deaf Pagan on the planet, and it wasn’t until around twelve years ago, when I got my first computer, that I discovered other Deaf Pagans out there. We are out there… but we’re a pretty widely scattered bunch. Discovering there were others prompted me to get involved with an internet group that later came to be called Deaf Pagan Network. I was quite active with this group for a couple of years, and served on its Council of Elders. I’ve since left the group, but I still maintain contact with a number of individuals whom I first met there – both deaf and hearing.
Over the years I have attended a number of Pagan gatherings and events where I quickly became known as “the Deaf Witch.” I even represented the Deaf Pagan Community at a Pagan Leadership Conference held a few years ago in Virginia. I’m a little more careful about advertising my spiritual beliefs at Deaf gatherings and events – not everyone in the Deaf Community is accepting of Paganism. However, I have discussed Paganism with certain Deaf individuals, and for the most part people have been pretty understanding and accepting. I even read tarot cards for a nationally known Deaf leader, who told me “you’re pretty darn good at this stuff!”
I now operate a blog site known as Deaf Pagan Crossroads (http://www.deafpagancrossroads.com) where I continue to try and serve as a bridge between the two communities, and a place for those who consider themselves members of both. It’s a website where I post my writings and sometimes those of others as well, as part of my ongoing efforts to educate the Pagan Community about deafness/Deafhood, and educate the Deaf Community about Paganism. One of the neat things about the blog is the many commentaries that are left by my readership…both deaf and hearing. Sometimes I think the comments are more interesting and more thought-provoking than the posts themselves.
I have a picture on my blog that shows the sign for “connect.” That’s what I see it as being all about – making those connections. So far, it seems to be working… I sure hope so, anyway!
Do you find that there are many “special needs friendly” groups, events, or other avenues within the Pagan Community?
First of all…I need to get on my soapbox here, so humor me for a minute or two.
I’m not real crazy about the term “special needs.” I understand it, I understand the rationale behind it, and I suppose on an intellectual level I can accept it. But on a more emotional level, the term makes me squirm… not only because I’m not sure that it applies so well to deaf and hard of hearing children, but because I’m not sure that it’s a label that I feel comfortable with using, period. I think that ALL children – heck, all people for that matter – are special and we all have needs. Some are basic needs that are commonly shared amongst all of us; others are needs that might be specialized to certain groups within the human population; yet others are unique, individualized needs that pertain to a specific person…child or adult. I think it’s important that we pay attention to those needs and strive to fulfill them whenever possible.
It’s also difficult because it tends to lump all children who are perceived as having some sort of “disability” together into one single group and giving them what we believe to be a polite, politically correct term – “special needs children.” This, in my humble opinion, just creates more problems than it solves. It assumes that if you understand one disability then you must, by default, understand them all. I might be an expert on deafness, but I would never presume to claim that I’m an expert on “special needs.” I don’t know what an autistic child might need, or a blind child, or a child who uses a wheelchair. And yet, in many mainstreamed programs, the educational needs of such children are often lumped together under the label of “Special Education” – which is often supervised by an administrator who may know diddly squat about many of the disabilities s/he is assigned to oversee. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with Deaf Education.
It’s complicated by the fact that many within the Deaf Community, who identify themselves as Deaf, do not see themselves as being disabled, and often feel they have little in common with other disability (or special needs) groups. The Deaf Community often feels it has more in common with other cultural groups, such as foreigners who come here from another country and thus speak a different language and may have different customs, beliefs, social norms, etc. And yet, we are rarely viewed in this light by the general public, and are consistently lumped with other disability groups and defined by our impairment…seen as being hearing impaired people rather than as Deaf people. “Hearing Impaired” is in fact a term that is generally detested by the Deaf Community. And yet, I am frequently surprised by the number of folks who seem to go out of their way to avoid using the word Deaf…as if it’s a dirty four letter word. They will come up with every other term in the book – hearing impaired, hearing challenged, non-hearing, etc. etc.
Okay…getting off my soapbox here. Take a deep breath, Osh.
Getting back to the question – I don’t know that I’m able to speak in regards to how accessible the Pagan Community is to persons with other disabilities, but in regards to how friendly it is to the Deaf Community… I think that really varies depending upon the particular individual(s) you are referring to. I’ve seen some groups within the Pagan Community who have truly gone out of their way to try and make their rituals, gatherings, events, etc. accessible to me and other members of the Deaf Community, and to try and make me feel welcomed. By the same token, I have seen others who basically turned their head the other way and gave me the cold shoulder when I tried to reach out and express my interest and explain my needs.
As harsh as this is going to sound, and I’m sure it will piss some people off…the Pagan Community doesn’t always practice what it preaches. We in the Pagan Community like to pride ourselves in being welcoming, accepting, open-minded, and all that jazz… but we have our share of narrow-minded jerks just like any other group. Sad but true, there are people out there who are going to cop an attitude whenever you try to tell them something they don’t wanna hear, or teach them something they don’t wanna learn.
This is especially hard when you are Deaf, and you’re trying to help people get a sense of what being Deaf is all about and also trying to advocate for your needs. The harsh reality is… people are ignorant when it comes to understanding deafness, or Deafhood. They just don’t get it, and they never will. It’s like the poem says – “You Have to Be Deaf to Understand.” But that doesn’t mean that you can’t at least make an effort to try and see things from my perspective, and appreciate where I’m coming from.
The biggest challenge for me as a Deaf Pagan is finding those Pagan groups, events, etc. that are accessible in terms of linguistic/communication issues. While I am fluent in English and can speak and lip read, my preferred language is American Sign Language, and my preferred mode of communication is manual-visual…i.e. sign language. Finding those groups within the Pagan Community where there are individuals fluent in ASL or those events willing and able to provide sign language interpreters is an on-going issue.
One big barrier is money – many of these groups operate on shoestring budgets and rely heavily on volunteers in order to put on their events. They don’t have the bucks to hire qualified interpreters if the need should arise. Even when they do, finding individuals with the appropriate skills and the understanding of Paganism and the terminology used in order to accurately convey the message in a comprehensible manner can be problematic.
But in the end, it all boils down to attitude. All the money and all the human power in the world ain’t gonna amount to much if you’re not willing to meet me (or any other individual with “special needs”) halfway. If you’re not willing to keep an open mind, to listen and to learn, to recognize and respect that we are the experts in regards to our own situations and our own needs… then you’re not going to get far.
I could go on and on regarding this subject, but I think I better shut up for now!
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