A Disabled Couple's Crusade for the Disabled

Article excerpt

The Apostolate for Persons with Disabilities would better be named the Apostolate with Persons with Disabilities, at least in the Venice, Fla., diocese. So contends Jean Beland, who, with her husband, Ralph, directs the apostolate.

In her view, persons who have handicaps are doers as well as beneficiaries of ministry.

The Belands themselves are prime examples. Ralph, 68, is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair since he contracted polio in 1949. In 1968, a car accident left Jean, now 65, quadriplegic for several months. Then, after surgery on her spinal column, she regained partial use of her arms and legs. Crutches enable her to walk.

The Belands' ministry for and with other disabled persons is wide-ranging. For the mentally retarded, they promote religious education and sacramental preparation, enabling them to receive communion and confirmation. For the profoundly deaf, they promote sign-language interpretation. For users of wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches, they vigilantly advocate accessibility in church property.

Among projects of their office are two annual Masses for people with disabilities, in different sections of the diocese. At these, handicapped persons serve in such capacities as eucharistic ministers and lectors.

Jean read a passage from the Gospel of John: "As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither he nor his parents sinned. It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'"

Jesus restores sight to the blind man, who for 30 years had begged beside a pool, depending on others. "It's pure assumption on my part," Jean said, but to her the passage implies that after the man was cured, "he had a role to play."

"That's what our ministry is about," she said. "We go out and try to make things available for people so they can turn around and work for Christ and minister also. It's not just a matter of doing to them."

For some, accessibility is the key that unlocks their ability to minister. In the 10-year-old Venice diocese, new churches are being built, and the belands advocate -- not always successfully -- that their sanctuaries be accessible and that small, cordless receivers for the hearing-impaired be incorporated into amplification systems.

"It's fine to have the church accessible," said Ralph, "but you must have restrooms that are accessible." If a disabled person encounters a problem or emergency with no accessible restroom available, it likely would be the last time that person would go there, he said.

The Belands also work with educators to make religious education and school problem-solving inclusive, which they contend benefits not only mentally and physically disabled persons but others as well.

Young children who have contact with the disabled learn to deal with the differences, Ralph said. Such an exchange also "helps the disabled to become socialized. They get a few of their corners knocked off along the way."

Too often people think handicapped persons, especially the mentally retarded, are "little angels" who need little help from the church, he said. But the spiritual problems of the disabled are no different from those of other people, he said.

"We can sin as much as the rest of them," Jean piped up. Each year the Belands plan special events, such as the annual retreat for adults who are mentally retarded and the annual retreat for people who are profoundly deaf. …