Celebrant Kathryn wedding Photo by Nnastia Photography

Kathryn Palmer-Skillings tells us why she decided to become a Humanist celebrant, how Humanist weddings differ from standard celebrations, and how she’s starting to tackle the elephant in the room.

Photo credit: NNastia Photography

How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I identify as a proud disabled woman. I’m really proud to be part of the amazing disabled community. We’re creative and strong in the face of lots of barriers and oppression.

I have a physical impairment, which means that I’m disabled by barriers that exist in the physical space. I’m disabled by the environment and by systemic ableism. I wouldn’t change my body to be honest, or at least not in terms of my disability, I might be a bit taller! But I wouldn’t change my body at all, because I don’t need to: what I need is things to work. That would be much better.

The World Health Organisation talk about disability being either a personal attribute or context dependent, and I really like that language: I like the distinction that it is a context dependent thing. My impairment level is pretty much the same day to day: how disabled I feel is completely reliant on what’s going on around me and where I am.

What is your business?

My business name is Celebrant Kathryn. I’m an accredited Humanist wedding celebrant, which means I create and lead unique wedding ceremonies for couples who want something that isn’t either a religious ceremony or a standard template civil ceremony that you get in a register office (with no disrespect to registrars, who work very hard).

Having a celebrant is a really, really different experience. Hosting a ceremony for a couple means that there’s a complete blank page, so I get to know them over a number of years, usually, or sometimes months or weeks. There’s no set structure: I get to know what they want from their wedding ceremony, and I help them think about how they want to feel.

Every Humanist wedding ceremony is completely unique to each couple and that means that you can have any kind of structure you like: you can have any readings or music, you can have a sing-along, you don’t have to worry about saying specific legal phrases that might feel outdated or irrelevant to you.

You can also have your ceremony anywhere you like. There’s been some loosening of rules recently about outdoor venues, but that’s only within places that already have a marriage licence, which is still pretty limiting. But if you’re having a wedding celebrant ceremony, you can literally have it anywhere. I’ve done lots of weddings in gardens – not big, massive gardens, but regular, normal people’s gardens, and it’s a really lovely experience. Or you can have it somewhere really meaningful to you, like the restaurant at which you had your first date.

Interestingly, most of the couples who book me still have their wedding in a licenced venue: what they want is that personalised experience that’s not all based in patriarchy, but more focused on them as a couple, sharing their story and their values and celebrating them.

What I love about Humanist ceremonies is that it puts you both at the heart of it! A religious ceremony centres on your faith, if you have one; a civil ceremony focuses on and centres on your relationship in the eyes of the law and rubber stamps it; whereas a Humanist or celebrant-led ceremony puts the humans and or pets or whoever at the centre. It’s about people. I love that.

Celebrant Kathryn credit Unique Imagery Photography

Photo credit: Unique Imagery Photography

Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.

I do have a day job, but I wanted to become a celebrant after I experienced the Humanist ceremony of some good friends. They did it for lots of reasons to do with culture and backgrounds and stuff that was going on in their lives: there was no way that a standard sort of ceremony would have been true to them. I watched their wedding and I loved that it was so personal and that the celebrant had clearly spent time with them and got to know them: it was absolutely their ceremony, it couldn’t have been anyone else’s.

My background is in working with people: all of my jobs have focused around including people and making sure they have a wonderful time, whether through volunteering, or community engagement, or learning and development. I love working with people to make sure they’re having a great time and that they’re celebrated.

I started the process of becoming a celebrant back in 2019, and I chose Humanist accreditation because it’s the gold standard. I also wanted to be part of a network.

I set my business up with inclusion in mind. In 2020, which was a quiet time because weddings weren’t really happening, I had more headspace to really think about the massive elephant in the room, which is that we don’t have marriage equality for disabled people in the UK. You can lose benefits or your financial independence if you get married. I want to start changing what people think of when they think about couples getting married.

I love the wedding industry, but it is predominantly white cishet and non-D/disabled, and predominantly female. I’m sure there are lots of people who have invisible impairments that I don’t know about, but you don’t see disability and disabled people represented very well in the wedding industry. Especially not in photoshoots or blogs. You just don’t see people with visible impairments. You’re not made aware of disabled people falling in love, having sex, hooking up, getting married.

Loads of wedding venues are functionally inaccessible. If the disabled access is via the bins then they can tick the “accessible” box, but entering an event that way doesn’t feel very ‘celebrated’! Or venues assume that disabled access is needed because your elderly grandmother will be attending. They don’t consider that perhaps people getting married will need different types of access. It just struck me as being frustrating, and I thought that while I had some headspace, I could try to focus on doing some stuff around that – even if it’s just me, chatting about things.

I started really small by sharing my experiences of how we found our wedding, and some of the ableist stuff that was said to me. I’m quite gobby, but I still didn’t always challenge it: I thought maybe they’re right, maybe I should accept this or feel grateful for having this experience at all. It was really interesting for me to share my experiences. Then I started doing a series of Instagram lives called ‘Weddings, Access All Areas?’ I spoke to various other disabled industry suppliers, and we just chatted about our experiences.

I don’t just marry disabled couples, but it’s been really lovely to have couples trust me, because they know that I’m not going to make any assumptions and because I’m going to make sure that they’re having the best time and that they’re celebrated, not just accommodated.

Celebrant Kathryn Photo of a wedding credit to Kirsty Mackenzie

Photo credit: Kirsty Mackenzie

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

While Humanist weddings aren’t legal in England and Wales, I’m always at a disadvantage. People are becoming much more open to it but there will always be people who can’t get their head around doing the paperwork in an office two days before the ceremony. I understand that for some people that will always be a step they don’t want to take and that’s fine.

I tell my couples that it’s a bit like if someone has a baby, you celebrate the baby’s birth, and then they might have a naming ceremony or christening, but no one stands up at the christening and says this is fake, they’ve already done it. It’s a similar model. In America‚ you get your wedding licence and then you can go off and have your wedding wherever: that’s accepted there and it’s becoming more accepted here.

More broadly, there is still a huge lack of representation in the wedding industry. I don’t know if I’ll have the spoons for it this winter, but my plan is to start a campaign to try to get venues, starting with wedding venues, to list their access on their website. I’ve had to turn down work because there are venues I can’t access: I have to say I’m really sorry, I would love to do your wedding, but it’s up a spiral staircase, and I can’t access it. If I get an inquiry for a venue I don’t know, I have to ring the venue and find someone who can tell me exactly what the stairs are like, have they got a handrail and so on. It’s extra labour that disabled people do that no one thinks about. If more people expected disabled people to be getting married then they might think about it more.

I’m talking about physical barriers because that’s my lived experience. I’m well aware that there plenty more barriers that aren’t physical. For example, if you’ve got a neurodivergent couple, considering things like making sure the temperatures are stable, different forms of lighting, and so on.

It’s not just ceremonies, but generally: if we as a society saw disabled people as humans doing things, as opposed to locked away, because there’s a more expendable group of people when a health crisis comes, then I think that will change.

Celebrant Kathryn Photo by Nnastia Photography

Photo credit: NNastia Photography

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

Now that I’ve started doing this work, I’ve found more and more people in the wedding industry who would consider themselves disabled or neurodivergent or identify with any kind of other group where you may have a barrier. Often they’ve started their own business because the nine to five is not an option and they need that flexibility. I wonder if there are barriers that could be removed, like acknowledging there are extra business costs, maybe a specific starter fund. Charities like Scope and so on may already be doing this, I don’t know.

Having more organisations for disabled people like d:Entrepreneur showing people that they have options would be helpful, because I doubt people are telling disabled kids to have loads of ambition and to start their business. It’s also knowing that there is something out there that can help, and then knowing where to find these things.

It comes down to visibility, to “If you can see it, you can be it”. Of course I knew I wouldn’t be the only disabled person working in the wedding industry, proportionately there must be some others, but I didn’t know who they were. It turns out there were various different people, which was great, but we’re not as visible.

In my day job, I was having a chat with someone about racism. They had recently read Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, and he asked me what was the equivalent book for ableism, and I don’t think there is one. We haven’t had that moment, and if I’m honest I don’t think society is ready for it. If we were going to have it, we’d have had it after covid. There have been lots and lots and years and years of amazing disabled activists, but we haven’t got that kind of public visibility. It’s a bigger question than business, but that’s where it starts: being seen as people who might have a regular job or an irregular job, as opposed to either scrounger or Paralympian. The media would have the wider population believe that for disabled people they’re your choices, there’s nothing in between. I think that’s the work that needs to be done.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

Although I’m not full time, starting as a celebrant, and making that leap to do that, was a really proud moment. You really have to put yourself out there. I knew I’d be invisible, and I also knew there was always a risk that there will be couples who won’t book me because I’m disabled.

And also building a lovely life with my husband and my cat. I don’t want to say getting married, because that’s the least feminist thing ever! Building a life is a better way of putting it.

Who or what inspires you?

I am really inspired by amazing activists who are challenging all sorts of boundaries and oppression. From the disabled community, I’m always really inspired by Nina Tame, who is on Instagram. And I’m inspired by my old friends and colleagues, like Paul Carter, who’s at the BBC, and Martyn Sibley, who I used to work with back in the day when he was an HR assistant and now he’s a superstar!

Zara Todd is also really active in the disabled community. And Sophia Munroe, who was part of a work campaign called Not Just NCVO, which looked at the fact that there are high levels of oppression in the charity sector. We have this idea that all charities are lovely, and nothing bad ever happens there.

Also Nova Reid, who is an amazing anti-racism activist who used to work in the wedding industry. There’s still not enough representation of Black and brown couples amongst wedding industry suppliers, but any good has essentially come from Nova, and she constantly fights the fight. I know that I have work to do in that space, as I think everyone does, and she really inspires me.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

I would really recommend the Business Proposal Podcast. It’s not disabled person specific, but they did do a great episode around running your business when you’re neurodivergent. It was started by two women who used to work in the wedding industry, funnily enough, but now it is just broadly about being an entrepreneur and what that looks like.