Those With Disabilities Enrich the Church

“It is a duty to guarantee persons with disabilities access to buildings and meeting places, to make languages accessible,
and to overcome physical barriers and prejudices,” Pope Francis said late last year.

Over time, the Church has become a more welcoming place for persons with disabilities, and there is much to celebrate in this area. The majority of Catholics with disabilities feel welcomed by the Church.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, some 26% of adults in the U.S. have some type of disability. Overall, 11.1% have serious difficulty with mobility, 10.9% experience significant issues with cognition, 5.7% are deaf or hearing impaired, 4.9% have a vision disability, and 3% have a self-care disability that impedes dressing or bathing.

While the Church has made strides in welcoming persons with disabilities, some sobering facts were outlined in a 2019 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The report, conducted in tandem with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), concluded that “there is ample room for dioceses and Catholic Charities to more explicitly focus on disabilities, as only 2 in 5 dioceses and 1 in 5 Catholic Charities agencies have an office or department responsible for services for people with disabilities.”

It is shocking that only 40% of dioceses have offices that work to support the disabled community. The report also found that only 60% of dioceses “have sacramental norms or guidelines addressing issues related to disabilities.”

This number should be 100%. Many other disappointing numbers are included in the report. Catholic schools are also in need of improvement in this area. Very few Catholic schools offer any type of assistance to persons with disabilities. The vast majority of parents who have children with disabilities send their children to public schools where they are much more likely to receive needed services, even if the family would otherwise prefer their children to attend Catholic school.

Those who advocate for more inclusion in the church for people with disabilities remain hopeful, however. “We’re going in the right direction,” Charleen Katra, executive director of the NCPD, said. “There has been a lot of movement [forward] over the last couple of decades.”

When voices of persons with disabilities are heard, pastoral approaches “(move) from inclusion to belonging,” said Katra.

“The parish can be and should be a place of hope,” she said. “It behooves the Church to be that safe place, that home for people to come and be accepted where they are, so we can, as Pope Francis says so beautifully… journey with them to a better place.”

Meeting a group of persons with disabilities late last year, Pope Francis said, “It is necessary to promote a spirituality of communion so that every person feels part of a body, with his or her unique personality.

“Only in this way can every person, with their limitations and gifts, feel encouraged to do their part for the good of the entire ecclesial body and for the good of society as a whole.”

People with disabilities are full members of the body of Christ and must be treated as such. Persons with disabilities can be seen as “agents of evangelization, not a subject of evangelization,” said Katra. “Their vocation is to serve the Church, not to be served.”