Towards full inclusion of persons with disabilities

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability was founded in 1982 as a non-profit institution to promote the full participation of people with disabilities and their families in the Church and society.

Gonzalo Meza-June 8, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

(Unsplash / Julius Carmine)

People with disabilities face numerous challenges in everyday life. One of them is mobility and access to public places. Others are jobs or transportation, which often do not accommodate people with disabilities.

This results in passive exclusion that in some cases becomes discrimination. To prevent this and promote the full inclusion of people with disabilities, in 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in the United States, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, public accommodations, transportation and communications. The law requires, among other things, that public places have parking lots dedicated exclusively to people with disabilities, ramped access and movement facilities within buildings, such as elevators or specially designed restrooms. 

Although this policy was a watershed moment in American society, the Church had been contemplating a committee for people with disabilities since 1975. As a result, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral statement in which the bishops urged the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Church and in society by providing facilities for them to do so.

Thus arose the National Catholic Alliance on Disability (NCPD). It was founded in 1982 as a non-profit institution to promote the full participation of people with disabilities and their families in the Church and in society. From its founding until today, the NCPD has published several documents to that end, including a manual to promote the participation of people with disabilities in the parish, the creation of accessible parishes, guidelines for the celebration of the sacraments, especially the "Masses friendly to the senses".

It has also participated in various international seminars and conferences. The work of the NCPD continues. It currently offers online courses and workshops on catechetical practices, sensory friendly masses and workshops for pastoral agents, seminarians and clergy. 

To learn more about this institution, Omnes spoke with its director, Charleen Katra, executive director, and Esther Garcia, in charge of Spanish-language affairs. Prior to assuming her duties as director, Charleen Katra worked for nearly twenty years as head of disability ministry in the Archdiocese of Galveston, Houston. 

What disabilities are covered in the training you offer?

- [Charleen Katra]: Physical, intellectual, behavioral and emotional disabilities are covered. One exception is deaf ministry, as there is a dedicated national Catholic office. However, we collaborate with them. 

What are the challenges facing the Church in the formation of people with disabilities?

-Charleen Katra]: The main challenge is how to teach faith to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; e.g. people with Down syndromeor autism. The diagnosis of the latter has increased both in the world and in the Church. The majority of our target audience are visually impaired, visually kinesthetic and tactual people.

Another area we address is people with mental illness. Living with mental illness is more than just depression and anxiety. There are people diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. We provide courses and workshops to adapt catechism classes or masses for this audience. For example, how to do a lesson with a multisensory or kinesthetic tactile approach with signs and symbols. In that sense, the church is an ideal place because we already have them. The more variety of ways you have to teach, beyond words, the more it will help. 

What are the main programs you offer?

-Charleen Katra]: We have online training courses. We call them "Premier Courses." Anyone can take the courses. We also have face-to-face courses. Esther Garcia offers the classes in Spanish. Different members of our Mental Disabilities and Wellness Committee offer trainings and lectures on these topics. We also work with publishers who ask us to do so. We recently made some adaptations and modifications to their catechism course program.

In terms of formation, there are some courses focused on the celebration of the sacraments or catechesis for people with special needs. It is a course addressed to all public, but it is useful especially for deacons and priests since they talk about the preparation and celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, Confirmation and Reconciliation. In this regard there are major differences that need to be considered for people with autism. In such cases, they may need a translator or an electronic device to communicate. For seemingly simple things like crossing oneself, many of them will need to learn the process for months before they can do it. 

What adaptations would have to be implemented to a "regular" Mass to make it friendly or accessible to people with disabilities?

-Charleen Katra]: We are all sensory beings. We are surrounded by them: the chair we are sitting in, the lights above us, the fan, our car. We experience a lot of different sensory information, but some people have very intense processing. When a person's brain does not process the senses in a "normal" way, it becomes a very complicated issue and sometimes they can't figure it out. However, all of us can help them and minimize their obstacles.

The implementation of what are called "sensory friendly masses" is increasing in the country. It is aimed at people and their families with disabilities. Going to Mass for many people with special needs is prohibitive because they can become overwhelming for some people. Think of autistic children who are sensitive to loud music, too many lights, crowds of people. These are very problematic issues for people with autism. 

A sensory-friendly, "sensory-low" Mass involves, for example, turning on only half the lights, reducing the number of songs to respond only verbally, placing rosaries at the entrance of the church (to encourage autistic or anxious children to concentrate), choosing short readings, preaching briefly and trying to keep the ceremonies to no more than one hour. These are examples of some minor modifications and adaptations. To implement them it is necessary to prepare the community beforehand, otherwise they can be confusing. Sometimes we become very possessive and think that it is "our Mass" and even "our place, our seat". You have to educate people by teaching them that at a special Mass different people will attend. If people are educated, they understand and become much more receptive. 

How many dioceses in the USA are affiliated with the NCPD?

-[Charleen Katra]: I would say about 50 % of dioceses have at least one person with that responsibility. We serve about 15 million Catholics. There are dioceses that probably have some dedicated ministry, but they don't have a connection with us. I would like all of them to have it. The door is open here. While our primary point of contact is the chanceries of the dioceses, we also mentor clergy members, parish council leaders, and so on. We are here to serve anyone in the Church. But as I said, diocesan leadership is our primary audience.

What resources do you offer for Hispanic Catholics?

-[Esther Garcia]: I started working with NCPD in 2016. I started as a board member in 2014 and then had to work with the dioceses to establish relationships and connect disability ministry with Hispanic ministry. We make sure we have resources in English and Spanish. I translate and review the materials so that they have the same quality, the same format as in English. There are various resources such as courses and seminars. We help the U.S., but we have also received requests from Ecuador, Chile and Europe. 

Can you share a special story that has touched your heart?

-Charleen Katra]: There are many, but I think of one. It was an email from a gentleman who talks to us about the need for the presence of the disability community at Mass. His email describes what he experienced at a Mass.

As the homily began, this person was honest and told me that he was distracted. Looking around she saw a child in a wheelchair. Next to him was a father taking care of him. With a rag he was wiping away the saliva that was dripping off him, but he was doing it with such tenderness, compassion and joy, that it showed all that a father is willing to do for a loved one. That was the best homily for that gentleman who sent me the mail, because it was the Gospel "incarnate", the message that God gave him. In this example we can see how a person with a disability evangelizes others when they are together. There the body of Christ is complete. All together in full inclusion. 

-Esther Garcia]: This was a teenage girl in a wheelchair. She could not speak because of a special condition. She was sitting at a table outside the church. I learned that she had not made her first communion and at her age she was due for confirmation. I thought I could help her by preparing her with personal classes. One of her family members told me no, because someone in the church had denied her the sacraments because of her condition. At that moment I recognized that as a church community something was wrong. It was not right. And I decided to intervene and help her.

We started sacramental preparation classes. After some time, the girl received reconciliation, first communion and confirmation. The mother and her relatives were happy. I think that many times as pastoral agents we have to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities. They seem invisible. They are not seen because many times we have not opened the doors for them. We have to make them not only in the church community, but also in the Masses.

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