By Kay Cozad
With federal civil rights laws in place in the U.S., equal opportunity for those with disabilities is ensured. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlaws any discrimination on the basis of a disability in areas from employment and public accommodations to transportation and telecommunications.
But what of the Catholic Church? How does the Church serve persons of faith who are challenged by physical or cognitive disability?
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Secretariat for Evangelization and Special Ministries has formed a Disabilities Advisory Board comprised of clergy, laity and disabled persons, that has met to address the needs of the area disabled Catholics.
One insightful priest on that board is Father David Voors, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption in Decatur. He shared his perspective on serving the faith formation needs of all persons.
He told Today’s Catholic that “within the parish church, God’s beauty (is) seen in every person.”
“Over the past year,” Father Voors said, “I have had the honor (and uneasiness at times too) of working on a committee for bettering a parish’s outreach to people with disabilities.” During his participation on the committee Father Voors has learned a few things.
“In most every meeting I attended, there was discussion over the proper term for someone who had a special need,” he said. “Handicapped, disabled, disability, impairment, special need, challenged — whatever it’s called, keep focused on the beauty and dignity of the person.”
He continued, “The question, ‘What is a disability?’ isn’t the question to ask. The focus isn’t on the wheelchair, impairment, crutch, mental or physical challenge — it’s on the person. The person carries the very likeness of God within and we must learn to see the person before we even notice the special need or handicap. When God sees each of His children, He sees beauty. We must learn to do the same.”
The outreach he envisions for the parishes around the diocese must be implemented slowly over time, he said. “Start with baby steps. Baby steps are important for they help move us in the right direction.”
Father Voors offered these three baby steps a parish might consider: “Make available electronic hearing aids, which can ‘tune in’ to your public address system. These individual hearing aids are battery operated and inexpensive. A parish member who struggles to hear can be given one to use whenever they come to worship,” he said, adding, “Make available low glucose hosts. This again is a small baby step … it isn’t difficult. A person can stop by the sacristy asking the celebrant to ‘add a glucose host’ to those to be consecrated. He/she simply comes to the main celebrant at Communion time.”
And finally, Father Voors would suggest a special needs area, which is handicapped accessible. “This may seem more than a ‘baby step’ but in today’s world of mobility, it is good to have an area that a person — whether with a crutch, wheelchair or perhaps a special needs dog — is able to be comfortable. This might take a bit of planning — but it shows our desire to be welcoming and caring,” he said.
Another way to serve all ability levels involves sharing, growing and praying … and sharing some more, said Father Voors.
“I was at a parish in South Bend a few weeks back that had a sign on it’s outside door giving directions for those who are disabled and have special needs. This was great to read! We need to thank those parishes, who have recognized the need to reach out in special ways — along with gentle encouragement to every parish,” he said.
Father Voors offered, “Here again, three simple thoughts: Invite parish members to form a committee to talk, share and pray regarding outreach to those with disabilities. Set a date for this to be started. You might be surprised at the response — and to the many special needs within the parish.”
He continued, “Invite parishioners with disabilities to be involved in ministries for the weekend Masses. And write a line or two each month in your Sunday bulletin to keep the parish informed.”
With these simple but powerful suggestions in mind, Father Voors said, “I realize as pastor, I have fallen far short in responding to those with disabilities or special needs. May you join with me recognizing the need and taking a step in the right direction.”
How to help …
The diocese has been working with committed and caring individuals who are seeking ways to reach Catholic disabled brothers and sisters. The Church is impoverished without the presence and the gifts of the disabled.
If you are interested in helping with this important ministry or if you know of someone who is disabled and is interested in greater and more meaningful participation in our Church please
contact Mary Glowaski at 260-399-1458 or [email protected].
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