The National Catholic Partnership on Disability was founded in 1982 in response to the 1978 Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons With Disabilities. Its mission is to be rooted in Gospel values that affirm the dignity of every person and works collaboratively to ensure that people with disabilities have meaningful participation in all aspects of the Church and society.

According to NCPD executive director Janice L. Benton, between 3 percent and 5 percent of Catholics with disabilities have cognitive disabilities. Although many dioceses and parishes have special programs for those individuals to learn about their faith and to prepare for the sacraments, many parents still have difficulty finding programs for their developmentally delayed or cognitively disabled children.

“There are regrettably still some individuals and families who don’t receive the support and services they need,” Benton told Our Sunday Visitor. “However, many people in parishes and dioceses throughout the United States, as well as the NCPD and other national Catholic organizations, are working to provide the resources and training needed to provide supports and catechesis for individuals living with autism, cognitive, sensory and physical disabilities and mental illnesses.”

Our Sunday Visitor: How can we as a Catholic community properly respond?

Janice L. Benton: Be open to every person as an individual. Look beyond the disability to see the person with gifts, interests and a unique personality. Recognize that each person is an important member of the Body of Christ. As Paragraph 1 of the Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments for Persons With Disabilities states: “By reason of their baptism, all Catholics are equal in dignity in the sight of God and have the same divine calling.” It is important that in planning programs or addressing needs, that the pastor, director of religious education, principal or other member of the parish talk and work with the individual or family members to identify the best way to meet the needs.

OSV: How’s the Church in the United States doing overall?

Benton: People do care and are seeking resources in order to respond. An NCPD Autism Task Force national survey resulted in nearly 500 responses of the ways parishes are meeting the catechetical needs of students with autism.

OSV: How is their preparation for the sacraments good for the life of the Church?

Benton: We are all part of the Lord’s body. Preparing and welcoming individuals with disabilities makes us a more complete community and supports not only the individual but the family. A person with a disability needs the grace of the sacraments as does anyone else.

OSV: What gifts do special needs individuals bring to the Catholic community?

Benton: Their desire to serve and their gifts and insights. They demonstrate to all of us the value and dignity of every human life.