Did it ever occur to you that people with physical disabilities may be slipping through the cracks in your parish? A physical disability is usually defined as something that limits a person’s ability to see, hear, walk, lift or carry. Some people are born with physical challenges. Others develop disabilities at different times in their lives.
The cause of the disability may stem from illness, an accident or age. Some disabilities are permanent, but you may have people in your parish who struggle with temporary disabilities as they recover from surgery or a trauma.
With some people, you can recognize the disability because the person is using crutches, a walker, a cane, wheelchair or some other device for hearing or visual impairment. But there are also physical disabilities that are invisible. You may have people in your parish who deal with severe pain in their bones, muscles or joints due to an accident or an illness. Some people suffer from weakness or chronic fatigue because of pulmonary disease, cardiac disease, or cancer.
Studies estimate that as many as 20 percent of the population have some kind of disability. Studies also show that 53% of people with disabilities do not come to Mass, and the main reason they give for not coming is that they don’t feel as if they are welcome.
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with someone who has a disability is that we often don’t know what to say or do. Disabilities make us acutely aware of the fragility of human life. We recognize our own vulnerability. We fear that this could happen to us someday, and it makes us feel uncomfortable. As a result, we tend to patronize the person, avoid the person, or ignore the person.
When we look at the Gospels, however, we see that Jesus took the opposite approach. He reached out to people with different needs, he asked them what they wanted him to do, and he healed them.
Jesus also urges us to invite people with disabilities to participate in whatever we are doing:
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12–14).
Here are some things you can do to reach out to people with disabilities in your parish:
- Organize a committee of interested people who would be willing to look at ways your parish be more in tune with the needs of people with disabilities. It’s a good idea to invite people who have a disability themselves or have a family member or friend who has a disability to be part of the group.
- Find out how many people in your parish have special needs. You might want to do a survey. Or you could ask parishioners to notify the office if they know of someone in their family or neighborhood that lives with some kind of disability.
- Set up a listening session or some other kind of feedback process so that people with disabilities can help you to understand what kinds of things that parish could do to make them feel more welcome and to encourage their involvement in parish ministries and organizations.
- Take a look at your parish facilities. What kinds of things could you do to make the parish more accessible to people with special needs?
- What kinds of things can you do for people who are home-bound to make them feel as if they are still part of the parish community? Do you have Eucharistic ministers to the Sick who can bring communion to people at home on a permanent or temporary basis? Some parishes have installed cameras so Mass can be broadcasted over the Internet on the parish web page.
- Start a parish prayer chain and invite people with disabilities to be part of the chain so they can pray for others.
- Create awareness in your bulletin about the kinds of things people can say or do to make people with disabilities feel more welcome.
- Encourage leaders of parish groups to involve people with disabilities in meaningful ways in their ministries and organizations.
- Start a prayer and support group with people who live with chronic pain. Help them to minister to each other.
- Reflect on the reality that we are all part of the Mystical Body of Christ. St. Paul tells us that every part of the Body of Christ is valuable and worthy of honor and respect. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (1 Corinthians 12:21–23).
- Finally, don’t think of “disability” in a negative way. Instead try to think of all people in the parish as people with “differing abilities” – no matter what limitations or challenges they may face.