Continuing what has been a series of powerful gestures to quite literally embrace people with physical or intellectual disabilities, Pope Francis celebrated Mass during the jubilee of the sick and persons with disabilities on June 12 2016. He was accompanied by altar servers with Down syndrome and persons with disabilities proclaimed the first two Scripture readings, including one in Braille. “The world does not become better because only apparently ‘perfect’—not to mention fake—people live there,” he said, “but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase.”
In an age when many seem to believe “anything imperfect has to be hidden away,” the pope said that limitations are part of being human. “Each of us, sooner or later, is called to face—at times painfully—frailty and illness, both our own and those of others.”
With one in five Americans—over 55 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—growing up with some form of physical, intellectual or neurological challenge, it is unlikely that there is a single parish in the country that is not touched by the issue of access and programming for parishioners with disabilities. Yet when you look around your church on Sunday, are people with developmental or physical challenges evident? Is your parish encouraging them to be present?
It is more likely that “you don’t see them because they don’t come,” says Stephen Riley. “And why don’t they come? Because they don’t get invited or they’re forced to the quiet room or discouraged from attending sacramental preparation.” It is a self-reinforcing cycle that in the end can mean further isolation from parish life for members with disabilities. Their families, perhaps infuriated or just hurt by the sense of exclusion they feel, will also disappear from parish pews, “living in the shadows” of parish life.
Until now, aside from scattered anecdotes generated from dioceses across the country, how well—or how poorly—the church is serving physically or intellectually challenged people and their families has been one of the “unknown, unknowns,” Mr. Riley says.
Janice Benton, Executive Director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, says “We need to be well past asking, ‘Should a child with disabilities be prepared for sacramental life?’ or ‘Should a child be accommodated?’ That should be a given. What we should be asking is how.” She adds, “If there’s an understanding that everyone belongs in the first place, and there is, then how do you accommodate that in a way that really engages people?” Even small efforts to that end can have a multiplier effect, according to Ms. Benton, as families who are experiencing a structurally welcoming parish get the word about it out to other families who may have dropped out of parish life.
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Kevin Clarke is a senior editor and America’s chief correspondent.
With thanks to America Magazine and Kevin Clarke, where this article originally appeared.