Making Liturgy Accessible

Planning for People with Special Needs 3.0

(Version 3.0)

an excerpt from

Rites of Worship

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

The following is an excerpt from Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, my book on liturgical design, preparation and performance. Unlike my sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book.


Not everyone who attends your rituals is going to be a perfect specimen of physical, emotional, and mental health, in the prime of their life, and fully capable of participating in whatever activity your liturgical design has planned. Unless you plan to screen all your participants to exclude the “differently-abled” (the currently popular term) and to banish them when they start to get old, you will need to pay attention to the special needs that any expected participants may have, and be prepared to make sudden changes if a differently-abled person shows up at the last minute.(1)

“One of the serious concerns of womyn [sic] ritualists is the question of where the responsibility resides for identifying and articulating a differing ability / need / preference. Is it the responsibility of the individual with such a need to express her [sic] concerns to the group/group leader, or should the group/group leader take responsibility for ascertaining such needs and always conduct ritual in such a way that it is accessible to everyone as a matter of course?”(2)

As we will see in the rest of this section, the responsibilities are mutual. Granted, magical and religious groups and their leaders should be somewhat psychic, yet no one ever “bats a thousand,” and it is unfair to expect them to guess at unexpressed special needs that individuals may have. At the same time, groups and their leaders should make it clear to all participants that they are open to requests for changes based on special needs.

Here’s a list of the major sorts of challenges that the participants in your liturgy may face:

  • Physical Challenges
    • Mobility impairment (walking, standing, dancing)
    • Allergies and asthma
    • Chemical intolerance
    • Height and weight differences
    • Pregnancy
    • Contagious diseases
  • Sensory Challenges
    • Vision problems
    • Hearing problems
  • Mental Challenges
    • Dyslexia
    • Right/left perception
    • Counting impairment
    • Understanding instructions
    • Understanding intellectual content
  • Emotional Challenges
    • Physical contact intolerance
    • Disfigurement
    • Severe psychological disturbance

You are not likely to be able to come up with liturgical designs and performance customs that will handle every conceivable handicap that a participant may have. All these challenges, as Beket Asar put it,

“…vary widely in their effects on the ability to participate in rituals, so one set of alternatives isn’t likely to prove workable for everybody. The wider the range of alternatives available for accomplishing each ritual activity or module, the more likely it is that a given need can be met.”(3)

The best that you can do is to investigate the needs of your regular attendees, make provisions for the commonest sorts of challenges, and inquire at every pre-ritual briefing as to whether somewhere is there who has special needs. Now let’s look at these categories one by one.

Physical Challenges

Mobility impairment is by far the commonest of these, and I’m not just talking about people in wheelchairs. Lots of people have difficulty walking long distances to a ritual site, standing for long (or even short) periods of time, participating in dances, and/or dodging rapidly moving others. Transportation to the ritual site should be as easy as possible, and comfortable chairs (with arms, to facilitate sitting and rising) should be available in the ritual area (sitting on logs or stumps may be more painful than standing).

In some cases, these chairs can be placed in the center of the ritual area, perhaps with (or as) your musicians and/or with the small children during dances. Be aware, though, that the noise may be painful close-up and that kids rampaging around a small area can knock chairsitters over! You could also place chairs in an arc facing the main activity area (such as the altar and central fire), and consider such “elder’s chairs” as a place of honor — but then you have to dance very carefully around them, if at all. Another option, depending upon the number of folks who need to sit and their ritual skills, is to make the chairs into special props, such as “thrones” at the four directions or behind the altar(s), and to give these chairsitters special duties in the liturgy.

If you were planning a procession to the ritual site, it’s a good idea to have the mobility impaired participants (along with musicians who have non-portable instruments, the fire watchers, etc.) stay at the ritual site. They can perform necessary preliminary steps such as lighting the fire(s), consecrating the altar and tools, leading a guided meditation for the other folks waiting, etc., until the procession appears. People could be stationed just outside of the ritual site to bless the processors as they arrive. All of this low-stress activity not only empowers the mobility impaired, it gets necessary tasks accomplished, and prevents the mana in the ritual site from being fragmented and chaotic during the wait for the procession. Above all, mobility impaired individuals should not be made to feel “in the way” and “dumped” in place while everyone else does the “important stuff.”

Allergies and asthma can be subtle or devastating in their effects on the individual and on the ceremony. Incense, various perfumes and scented oils, flowers, and even wood smoke can trigger allergic reactions. Yet these are items that are important aesthetic elements in most liturgies. If you know that you have someone with allergic or asthmatic problems in your ritual, you may be able to solve the problem by placing them upwind of the fire (or giving them encouragement to move their position as necessary), not censing them or the people on either side, not annointing them with oil, etc. If their problems are severe, they may have to be resigned to watching the liturgy from a safe distance and/or forming their own group to do non-triggering rituals.

Chemical intolerances must be considered too. If you are going to be using alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, or other mind altering substances in your liturgy, you need to have alternate arrangements available for those participants who cannot tolerate them or who choose not to indulge in them for spiritual reasons. Recovering alcoholics, ex-smokers, elders with prostate problems, diabetics, people with eating disorders, etc., will all have good and sufficient reason to not consume these substances. It is now common for most Neopagan rituals to include two cups of liquid to be blessed by the Deity(ies), one alcoholic with the other non-alcoholic; sugar-free food can be used for ceremonial meals; sage can be burned instead of tobacco, etc. These situations just require you to be imaginative in your liturgical design.

Height and weight differences can cause trivial but annoying problems for some. A person who is exceptionally tall or short will find it uncomfortable to hold hands or to have her/his arms around the persons on either side for long periods of time. People who are exceptionally wide (or “differently horizontal”) may find it difficult to move gracefully in small areas and/or to dance vigorously. These people should be encouraged to modify their physical movements to meet their comfort needs.

Expectant mothers have very special needs and with the current Pagan population explosion underway you should expect increasing numbers of pregnant women to appear at your liturgies. Most of what’s been discussed above is relevant here: chairs should be present, incense should not be blown in their faces, non-alcoholic beverages should be available, etc. Use your common sense and be sure to ask every pregnant woman present if she wants or needs special attention (many don’t).

Contagious diseases: If someone has an illness that is easily spread by sneezing or touch, of course they should stay home (though you may still have a religious obligation to visit them). A disease that requires intimate contact, or the exchange of bodily fluids, on the other hand, is not necessarily cause to exclude oneself. Such folks should be advised that it’s OK for them not to exchange kisses during a dance, that they don’t have to touch other participants, and that they should bring their own cup or that one can be provided. In the latter situation, you merely pour consecrated fluids from a main cup into the individual’s cup, thus preventing germs or viruses from being passed mouth-to-mouth. Some groups, especially during flue season, may prefer to have everyone bring their own cup and to consecrate and pass pitchers of wine and water (etc.).

One common theme you may have noticed throughout this discussion of physical challenges is that vigorous dances, especially spiral dances or others that wind about the entire ritual area, are often A Bad Idea when physically (or sensory) challenged people are present. Not only can small children and people in chairs get knocked over (along with altars and other props), but asthmatics and the obese will run out of breath, children and other short people can get their arms severely yanked, folks with foot or leg problems can trip and fall, etc. Dancing should either be left to the young and healthy and/or should be slow and stately, with plenty of care taken for those who need it.

Sensory Challenges

When considering visual problems it’s important to remember that there is a wide variety of them that people can have. Some folks are near-sighted, far-sighted, have tunnel vision, lack depth perception, are color blind, etc.(4), and some can see little or nothing at all. Similarly, there are many sorts of hearing impairment. Some folks can hear only loud noises, others only those above or below a certain pitch, still others only out of one ear, etc. To make your liturgy effective for these people you need to focus on two areas: personal safety and multisensory stimulation.

It’s probably safest for most people with visual challenges (and some with hearing problems) to remain stationary throughout the ceremony, and the comments made above about the mobility impaired would apply here as well. Someone with “normal” vision should remain near the visually impaired to interpret as needed and to prevent others from colliding with them. A sign language translator can be useful for the deaf and/or signing can be combined with ritual gestures to great artistic and communicatory effect. A written copy of the script can be very useful for hearing impaired participants. “Multisensory stimulation” means that all cues and ritual actions should be both visual and auditory, as well as kinesthetic (when possible). You need that sort of approach to make a ritual as powerful as possible anyway, so the presence of vision (or hearing) impaired individuals should merely be an added inducement to make sure that every element of your liturgy reinforces every other one.

Mental Challenges

It’s important not to assume that everyone attending your ritual can read a script, count to ten, tell left from right or clockwise from counterclockwise, or understand and/or remember instructions given several minutes before. I’m not talking here about people with low I.Q.’s, but rather about a range of subtle mental impairments that can temporarily or permanently affect otherwise “normal” people. Your group may not be prepared to host people with severe mental handicaps (few congregations, in any religion, are, unfortunately), but you can and should be able to handle those with minor ones. Dyslexia, left/right confusion, poor memory, etc. can be approached as challenges to you, the liturgist, to see to it that your prayer books (scripts) are typeset with large serif type and include graphics with arrows to show movement cues, that your liturgical structure flows smoothly and inevitably from one step to the next, that obvious cues and instructions to the participants are incorporated into the ritual design, and so forth.

People who can’t understand the intellectual content of your ceremonies, whether by reason of age, mental impairment, lack of education, or language difficulties, must be reached through through non-intellectual means such as music, song, dance, storytelling, drama, and the other arts. These means can very frequently succeed in communicating ideas and experiences that straightforward speech and writing can’t. Effective use of the arts will make your liturgies as inclusionary as possible.

Emotional Challenges

Physical contact intolerance: Neopagans tend to be a huggy/kissy crowd. Most of us love hand-holding, hugs, kisses, chain dances, and other sorts of physical contact, and we generally manage to work a lot of these into our ritual designs. Unfortunately, there are a sizable number of folks for whom even hand-holding is an ordeal. I’m not talking about people who are cold and distant sorts, but rather about those who are survivors of rape, incest, and various sorts of physical and sexual abuse (although I suspect that most of the “cold and distant” are exactly such people). We now know that a high percentage of women and men have been victimized over the years (and passed that victimization onward) and that all of our communities, Neopagan and mainstream, have many such victims as members.

Meeting the needs of people for whom physical contact is unpleasant, without making them feel bad or spoiling the warm intimacy for the other participants, is not easy. If you know that you have people like this present, you can suggest that they wear some special sign (such as a ribbon of a particular color, or a picture of a hand with a “No” circle and slash mark across it) during the ritual, and have plenty of the signs available. Such signs should be easily visible under your expected lighting conditions. Or you can suggest that they stand or sit in a special “safe space” during the liturgy, where everyone will know not to hug or kiss them.

Related to this issue is the problem that some people have with kissing and/or hugging members of their own or the opposite sex. Whether this constitutes a “handicap” or not I will leave up to you, but it’s a good idea to develop customs in your group to deal with the issue. Heterosexual men in kissing dances, for example, will often just touch cheeks with the other men, and women who do not want to be hugged by a particular person (or all the members of a particular class of people) will often just squeeze the other person’s arms below the shoulders and move quickly on. These issues of group and personal intimacy are important ones that should be discussed during your liturgical planning sessions.

Another emotional challenge, one that hits both its victims and its observers, is that of “uglinessand physical disfigurement. Not everyone is pretty and the term “looksism” has been coined (I believe originally by the women’s community) to refer to discrimination based on physical appearance. Whether we’re talking about those who are “differently horizontal,” or who have had limbs amputated, bald men or bearded women, or those who have been scarred by fire or accident, the way that we or someone else looks can have psychological effects ranging from the trivial to the devastating.

It’s vital that every individual be treated with the dignity that they deserve as human beings, yet you also need to pay attention to the effects that someone’s presence may have on your ritual. This is one of the trickiest areas of ritual casting and performance — in fact, it’s a spiritual, political and psychological minefield. Normally, someone who is elderly and “plain” should not be asked to play the role of a beautiful young divinity in a ritual drama. Yet if everyone knows and loves them as a member of their community, they may be transformed during the ritual and their inner beauty may shine forth in a way that startles everyone concerned.

Similarly, someone with a severe disfigurement may come to your liturgy and shock the other participants so much that no one can concentrate on the ritual (granted this is a rare occurance, since most such people isolate themselves out of a justified fear of exactly such reactions). Here is where a quick conference with the individual person before the ceremony is vital. Welcome them, and then find out if they have any particular talent, such as singing, poetry, leading guided meditations, etc., which they would be willing to use in the liturgy. If so, draft them immediately, even if you have to bump someone else. If not, assure them that they can participate as fully as they wish. The key point is to integrate them into the group and the ritual as matter-of-factly as possible. You may also wish to subtly modify your guided meditations to focus on the ideas of inner beauty and the importance of the individual soul, without making obvious references to the disfigured person’s presence.

Of course, all this will be difficult if you suffer from looksism yourself, and will still require the members of your group to deal with their own prejudices and fears — especially if the new person decides to become a regular. But that is a spiritual exercise I will leave for the reader.

People with severe psychological disturbances represent yet another sort of emotional challenge. People suffering from severe schizophrenia or multiple personality syndrome may begin to behave bizarrely in the middle of your ceremony. A particularly insecure person may try to hog attention during a part of the ceremony where offerings of art are given to the Deity(ies). An incest survivor may suddenly start to have memory flashbacks. A self-destructive individual may decide to try and commit suicide with your ritual sword. A widow/er may break down into uncontrollable grief.

Although fortunately these sorts of events aren’t common, they are normal. A properly executed liturgy will raise and channel enormous amounts of emotion, and therefore of mana. Anyone who is on the edge of a psychological transformation, positive or negative, can be tipped over by a strong mana flow. You therefore need to know how to handle such situations.(5)

First, be ready to accept that your liturgy may indeed get ruined. The immediate psychological and spiritual needs of the individual will in some situations be obviously more important than keeping the ceremony running smoothly. After all, you can always do the ritual over later, but you can’t undo a suicide or a psychotic break. Still, if you can, you should try to help the disturbed person in such a way as to allow the liturgy to continue.

Second, whoever in your group has had formal training in psychological counseling and spiritual first aid should go to the person and apply their skills. Everyone needs to be aware that what may seem like a mental or emotional breakdown may in fact be a moment of spiritual transformation for the individual involved (or not). The helper(s) should ascertain as quickly as possible the nature of the problem and the appropriate response. Perhaps your group should concentrate their mana on doing a healing, perhaps the person needs to be removed from the ritual area and given a cup of hot tea, perhaps they need to address a public prayer to the Deity(ies) being worshipped, perhaps they’ve been possessed and need to communicate a message to the other participants, perhaps they’re merely an egomaniac who needs to be firmly shushed! Generally it’s better (spiritually and liturgically) to go along with their genuine needs, rather than to fight them.

Which is, of course, true of all the other special needs we’ve been discussing in this section. It’s often a good idea to have one or more people assigned to the task of greeting newcomers, assisting those who are challenged in some fashion, and making sure that everyone is empowered and enabled to participate fully in the liturgy. That’s part of what makes a group of isolated individuals into a community, after all.

Better yet, make sure that people with special needs are invited into the liturgical planning process from the beginning. At the least, you can consider the liturgical participation of such people as a creative exercise in your planning, and be prepared to welcome them if, as, and when they arrive… because they will!


  1. I am especially indebted in this section to the following folks for their ideas (which I have stolen shamelessly): Beket Asar of A.D.F., Jade and Lynnie of the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess, and Magenta of Prodea Temple. Go back.
  2. From a letter to the author by Jade & Lynnie, 1989. Go back.
  3. From a letter to the author, 1989. Go back.
  4. As Magenta put it, “Isn’t it interesting that all these terms have meanings other than strictly perceptual?” Folks with the psychological equivalents of these problems can present even greater challenges to a ritual group than those with a physical sensory problem do. Go back.
  5. I highly recommend Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, ed. by Stanislav & Christina Grof, Jeremy Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1989. Go back.

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book. Click here to buy it from

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