Including persons with disabilities in church life

Better understanding leads to inclusion

By Norma Leibold

Special to The Witness

Each year, March is set aside as Disability Awareness Month. In 1978, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared, “There can be no separate church for persons with disabilities. We are one flock that serves a single shepherd.” Since that time, including persons with disabilities in all aspects of parish life has been our guiding principle. The key to realizing this goal of creating a parish culture where everyone has opportunities to participate is understanding; first, having a better understanding of persons with disabilities themselves and second, having a better understanding of how to include everyone. We understand we are all created in God’s image. But do we truly understand persons with disabilities can also have a deep love for God in their hearts?

Do we also understand how much persons with disabilities want to be a part of parish life? Do we also understand these individuals can be actively participating members at Mass and valued contributors to parish life? Sometimes I think we fail to envision our members with disabilities (I prefer to say persons with varied abilities), as being caring, participating, contributing members. We need to realize we are all more alike than we are different. Everyone has a need for God in their life, to be a part of their church community, to be recognized for their gifts and to be affirmed. Everyone wants to be treated with dignity. When we better understand our parish members of varied abilities, we are better equipped to help them be accepted and participating parish members. When everyone is given an opportunity to be a part of our one church, individuals and parishes are blessed in innumerable ways. This second part of understanding is; how do we actually go about including everyone. I like to say, “If you want to include, you will find a way.” I also like to say, “The secret is creative thinking.” Sometimes we just have to make it possible, by not necessarily doing things in the typical way. We need to approach things differently. We have a tendency to try and figure out how someone can do something; maybe a better plan would be to identify someone’s strengths and then create an opportunity for them to use their gifts. Let me give you a couple examples. A person could be a minister on hospitality, even if they do not speak.

Everyone understands a smile. A person could be a part of the choir even if they don’t sing. Shakers or tambourines can be a great addition to the service music. A person could be a lector even if they need a support person standing beside them to help with any difficult words. A person in a wheel chair could be a part of a procession or bring up the gifts. The idea is to recognize what someone can do and then find a way to include their contribution in a meaningful way. It is not hard to do. In fact, it can be very contagious as your example of including will inspire others to also find ways to be more inclusive. Yes, everyone has something to contribute. No one is too disabled to be an active member of a parish. When parish members of varied abilities are not just present in the pews, but participating members fully involved and included in parish life, your parish will give witness to the dignity of every person. When you value and include everyone’s gifts and contributions, your parish communities will be enhanced and people will see the living presence of our Lord. Norma Leibold is an advisory committee member for Ministry to Persons with Disabilities (and Disability Advocate).