Making Room for Persons with Disabilities
by Janice Benton, OFS, and Nancy Thompson, OCDS, D.Min.
National Catholic Partnership on Disability
idea of "making room" has both negative and positive connotations: "allowing
in" and "proactive anticipation." The Catholic Church does not "allow in"
persons with disabilities, because we recognize that they already belong. If a
person is missing or not recognized as a valuable member of the community, the
Body of Christ is incomplete. Instead, we must take proactive steps to make
room for and embrace persons with disabilities and their families with pastoral
decisions to always "say yes"; to be welcoming and to create universally
designed settings and programs that accommodate both those born with disability
and those who acquire disability through accident, illness, or as part of the natural
are blessed by the teachings and Tradition of our Catholic faith, which affirm
the dignity of every human person, born in the image and likeness of God. St.
John Paul II, in his 1980 "Message to the Handicapped," noted, "God has shown
us unsurpassably how he loves all human beings, and thereby confers upon them
an infinite dignity" (Angelus,
November 16, 1980: Insegnamenti, 3/2 , 1232.)
with disabilities experience this dignity within their faith communities? Do
they find the open doors called for by His Holiness Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: "The Church is called
to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. . . . Everyone can
share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community,
nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason" (Pope
Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii
Gaudium [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2013], no. 47)? Are they seen as of "inestimable
value . . . masterpieces of God's creation, made in his own image, destined to
live forever" (Pope Francis, Message Before Day for Life, July 17, 2013, www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-all-life-has-inestimable-value)?
In many parishes, yes. In too many parishes, no.
Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) knows that "being in the image of God
the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just
something, but someone" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC],
2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–USCCB, 2000], no. 357).
Because we are Catholic,
we know that each person has innate dignity. "By reason of their baptism, all
Catholics are equal in dignity in the sight of God and have the same divine
calling" (Guidelines for the Celebration
of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities [Washington, DC: USCCB,
1995], no. 1). We believe that "each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each
of us is necessary" (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, April 24, 2005, no. 6, www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050424_inizio-pontificato_en.html),
and that "all life has inestimable value . . . even the weakest and most
vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of
God's creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving
of the utmost reverence and respect" (Pope Francis, Message Before Day for Life).
Bringing this to lived experience in each parish is the challenge.
NCPD defines disabilities
as the "normal, anticipated outcomes of the risks, stresses, and strains of the
living process" (Mary Jane Owen, NCPD, 2000). In other words, disabilities are
a normal part of life, touching everyone regardless of age, race, or culture. One
person in five has some form of disability; one family in every three has a
member with a disability (United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html).
Disability is not exceptional but a natural condition that we must anticipate
and prepare for in our parishes.
for persons with disability is important, but attitudes of openness, value, and
welcome are crucial. Many Catholic families leave the Church when a member with
physical disabilities cannot enter the buildings and go to a different parish
or denomination whose worship site is accessible; many others leave due to
attitudes of disdain or unwelcome. They find that being inside the church does
not guarantee belonging. Families and people with disabilities have shared that
they often feel on the periphery, seen as a problem to be solved or dealt with,
rather than as valued, contributing members of the parish. The NCPD surveyed
families of children with autism to gather stories to take to the Vatican for a
presentation by Janice Benton on November 21, 2014, at the Pontifical Council
for Health Care Workers' XXIX International Conference, The Person with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Animating Hope. Respondents
were asked to share a "best story" experience with their child in a parish. Tragically,
the responses from three families were, "I wish I could think of some," "I have
yet to experience this," and, "There is no hope in my parish."
There is an
important distinction between "inclusion" and "belonging," which has begun to
be articulated in the United States. When people are "included," they are
"allowed in" based on the goodwill of those in charge. There is the possibility
of "exclusion" for any number of reasons, including lack of preparation, budget
concerns, fear, and disinterest. A sense of "belonging," on the other hand, recognizes
that by virtue of our Baptism, we belong (see Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition: New English
Translation [Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC)]
[Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998], c. 204). As a mother of a
young woman with significant disabilities explained, "Before I read the
bishops' Pastoral Statement (Pastoral
Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities, [Pastoral
Statement] USCCB, 1978), I thought that my parish offered our family three 'B's'—Baptism,
back of the Church seating, and burial. But after reading the Pastoral
Statement, I understood that the Church offered my family 'belonging.'"
The statement referenced by this
mother was written by the Catholic bishops of the United States in 1978. The profound
truths of it and subsequent documents continue to touch hearts and direct our
ministry with people with disabilities in dioceses throughout the United
States. The 1995 Guidelines, due to
be revised in 2015, have provided fuller access to the sacraments by persons
with disabilities. They state that "Catholics with disabilities have a right to
participate in the sacraments as full functioning members of the local
ecclesial community (Cf. CIC, canon 213). Ministers are not to refuse the
sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, who are properly
disposed, and who are not prohibited by law from receiving them (Cf. CIC, canon
843, sect. 1)" (Guidelines, no. 2).
In 1998, the USCCB released a
statement that provided a moral framework based upon previous Catholic
documents to serve as a guide for contemplation and action to "assist the
faithful in bringing the principles of justice and inclusion to the many new
and evolving challenges confronted by persons with disabilities" (Welcome and Justice for Persons with
Disabilities: A Framework of Access and Inclusion, [USCCB: Washington, DC,
1998]). That was followed in 2005 by the National
Directory for Catechesis (NDC), which states that "all persons with disabilities
have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its
truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts. Their involvement
enriches every aspect of Church life. They are not just the recipients of
catechesis—they are also its agents. Bishops have invited qualified persons
with disabilities to ordination, to consecrated life, and to full-time
professional service in the Church. All persons with disabilities or special
needs should be welcomed in the Church. Every person, however limited, is
capable of growth in holiness" (NDC [USCCB: Washington, DC, 2005] no. 49).
What does religious liberty mean for
persons with disability? At the most fundamental level, it means the right to
be born, live, and die with dignity. The abortion rate for fetuses suspected of
having disability or a life-threatening condition ranges from 80-94%. Babies
born with disability or life-threatening conditions face the threat of being
allowed to die due to various reasons that are all opposed to Catholic
teaching. At the end of life, the threat of euthanasia or physician-assisted
suicide that targets people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities decries
the sanctity of life and the sacredness of the human person.
We all take for granted our right to
worship our God without interference. It is not always a "given" for persons
with disability to make that assumption in their own parish. Will there be sign
language interpreters when needed, physical access, acceptance as valued
members of the community, faith formation, and sacramental reception
opportunities throughout their lifetime? Not necessarily so.
There are many practical actions and
proactive steps that dioceses and parishes can take to ensure that people with
disabilities and their families feel that they truly belong. First and foremost,
make a commitment to serve children and adults with disabilities, acknowledging
their place in the parish community. The sidebar offers practical first steps.
the dignity of every human person is not an option for Catholics—it is a
foundational principle of our faith. Good catechesis for children and adults
will include concepts and formation techniques that are age and developmentally
appropriate to communicate this important teaching. Parish planning and
experience must be informed by it. Diocesan and parish leaders must design
guidelines and plans to support it. The dignity of each person, born in the
image and likeness of God, is a precious gift to the Church and the world.
Practical First Steps
1. Diocesan and parish catechetical leaders (PCL) must make the conscious decision to become aware of what you will need to serve this population in your diocese and parish. The NCPD and many diocesan and parish leaders are already experts in this field and are eager to share their knowledge and resources with you. The primary person to consult is the individual with a disability or his or her family member, as appropriate.
2. Find resources at NCPD (www.ncpd.org), the National Catholic Organization for the Deaf (www.ncod.org), and the University of Dayton Institute for Pastoral Initiatives/Resources for Inclusive Catechesis (www.ipi.udayton.edu). Seek support from your Catholic religious education publishers in adapting materials for use with persons with disabilities, or seek out materials specifically designed for them, such as (1) the Loyola Press Sacramental Preparation Kits and Adaptive Finding God series; (2) NCPD’s My Catholic Church app to prepare those with more severe disability for Mass attendance, Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation; (3) the Kennedy Curriculum as recently adapted for students with autism by the Diocese of Pittsburgh; and (4) the University of Dayton sacramental preparation books, DVDs, online resources, and Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation, which includes a certification track of courses on disability ministry.
3. Provide in-service to catechists and school teachers.
4. Work on proactive plans for including students with various disabilities into parish catechetical programs and schools.
5. Remember that “one size” does not fit all. Be prepared to individualize.
6. Place notices in bulletins and make announcements that all children are part of the parish family and welcome in the programs.
7. Ask diocesan newspapers to have positive articles on people with disabilities in each issue to spread awareness throughout the parishes.
8. Find meaningful ways for children and adults with disabilities to serve the parish according to their gifts and interests.
2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without
adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, April
24, 2005,copyright © 2005,
Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All