Experts hold hope for pastoral inclusion of Catholics with disabilities, but also lingering challenges

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — At his home in Saginaw, Mich., John Kraemer, 45, spends hours every day at his craft and his calling — building elaborate models of Catholic churches, then filling them with figurines to display in various parishes.

Its materials are simple: brightly colored plastic LEGO building blocks (approximately 25,000) that have delighted children for decades.

But the message offered by Kraemer – who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, as well as visual and hearing impairments – is profound.

“My work is a prayer,” Kraemer said. “I share my passion for faith through (LEGO) bricks. And the numbers in the church include people in wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs…seniors, service dogs.

A blind woman uses braille during a 2017 mass marking the feast day of Saint Lucia, patron saint of the blind, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (photo OSV News/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The point, Kraemer said, is to show that “all are welcome in this church. … People often see themselves sitting inside the project, (which) … is not a reflection of the past, but a prayer for the future.

And those seeking to better include people with disabilities in church life say the horizon is bright, despite the continuing challenges.

“We are moving in the right direction,” said Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. “There’s been a lot of movement (forward) over the past two decades.”

“I feel like we are making very good progress, and what makes my heart happy is to see the parishes (aware) that this effort to include people with disabilities is part of the daily mission of the ‘church,” Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen said. Schipani, director of the Office for Persons with Disabilities for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and former chairman of the NCPD board of directors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 26% (or 1 in 4) of adults in the United States have some type of disability. Overall, 11.1% have severe mobility problems, 10.9% have significant cognitive problems, 5.7% are deaf or hard of hearing, 4.9% have visual impairment and 3% have an inability to take care of themselves that prevents them from getting dressed or bathing.

Both Katra and Sister Schipani said that the continental phase of the Synod on Synodality 2021-2024, with its various listening sessions, has helped to highlight the concerns and ideas of this important demographic group within the Church.

“The synod was a good first step,” said Sister Schipani. “The process has been particularly helpful, especially hearing the stories of people with disabilities and seeing how they view the efforts of the church. The only way to progress is to listen to the stories.

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

Experts hold hope for pastoral inclusion of Catholics with disabilities, but also lingering challenges
A file photo shows Father Jamie Dennis, who is blind and serves in the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., using Braille as he celebrates a mass marking the feast of Saint Lucia, patron saint of the blind, at the cathedral New York City St. Patrick’s Day. (photo OSV News/Gregory A. Shemitz)

She submitted a proposal to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asking them to adopt this perspective by issuing a new pastoral statement on persons with disabilities, which updates the bishops’ original document in 1978.

“My suggestion for new is to focus more on abilities rather than disabilities, and…a sense of belonging, at all levels of human feeling and experience,” Katra said.

Rather than being an initiative of a few trained specialists, ministry to people with disabilities should involve “every member of the church (so that)…all people have access, feel welcome and know specifically that they belong to church, and have access to church life,” Sister Schipani said.

From this perspective, people with disabilities can be seen as “agents of evangelism, not a subject of evangelism,” Katra said. “Their vocation is to serve the Church, not to be served.

She and Sister Schipani highlighted several areas where pastoral ministry to people with disabilities requires greater investment.

Catechesis and faith formation materials still need to be made more accessible, said Sister Schipani, who in 2017 developed and released the “Religious Signs for Families” app to help deaf children and their family members learn to pray in American Sign Language.

“We are still seeing some leading publishers not captioning their media content,” she said, adding that simply relying on adaptive technology to close the gap is insufficient.

“Ask anyone who actually uses adaptive technology,” Sister Schipani said. “For deaf people, you can use automatic captioning, but it doesn’t work well with religious terms. So taking this extra step expresses that we keep Deaf and hard of hearing people in mind, and that they are cherished members of our community.

The establishment by the Word on Fire Institute of the Venerable Jerome Lejeune Fellowship – designed to raise awareness of the importance of people with intellectual disabilities and disabilities both in the church and in culture – was a positive sign from a key provider of religious training content, she said. Named after the French scientist who identified the genetic cause of Down syndrome, the inaugural scholarship is currently held by Mark Bradford, founding president of the US branch of the Paris-based Jérôme Lejeune Foundation and parent of an adult son with the disease. Down syndrome.

Making Catholic schools “more inclusive for children with developmental disabilities” is also vital, Sister Schipani said. “A completely separate school for special education is not a trend that has a future, and the research confirms it.”

A 2018 study by the National Council on Disability titled “The Segregation of Students with Disabilities” found that “inclusive education yields the best learning outcomes”.

Offering welcome to people with mental illness, Alzheimer’s and dementia is increasingly important, especially as the number of those affected increases across the country, Katra said.

From 2019 to 2020, nearly 21% of American adults — more than 50 million — suffered from a mental illness, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. The CDC estimates that by 2060, the number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, will rise in the United States from just over 5.6 million to 14 million.

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

Kraemer said that was the goal of his brick-by-brick labor of love.

“As I build, I pray for the life of the church, of our parish communities…especially after COVID, when we’ve taken a beating,” he said. “I pray that people will make Mass a priority, that more people will be willing to explore their talents and use them as a way to evangelize like I do.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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