Communities Must Welcome the Disabled

Article excerpt

Progress in religious life has not always kept pace with liberation in the broader culture for persons with disabilities

The 1990s have been a decade of unparalleled liberation for persons with disabilities, a group of people so marginalized they were rarely even perceived as such. Despite the continual example of holistic healing set by Jesus in the gospels, persons with disabilities have historically been viewed only as bodies needing care, not as unique individuals whose gifts and potentials were in dire need of liberation.

Since President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the situation of disabled people in U.S. society has changed dramatically. The act extends greater participation in mainstream American life, with provisions ensuring the civil rights of disabled persons in the areas of employment, public accommodations, communications and transportation. The ensuing installation of curb cuts and ramps, as well as reasonable accommodations in the workplace, has done much to ensure the inclusion of disabled persons in society.

Predating the act by 12 years, the U.S. bishops' pastoral on persons with disabilities served both as inspiration and model for the disabilities act. The bishops clearly called all Catholics to imitate the Jesus who was so keenly aware of the plight of the many individuals with disabilities who crossed his path in Judea and Samaria. The pastoral challenged the church to include persons with disabilities in all phases of its life:

"Realizing the unique gifts disabled individuals have to offer the church, we wish to address the need for their integration into the Christian community and their fuller participation in its life." The pastoral called for the establishment of disability ministry on the national, diocesan and parish levels.

Due to these efforts, persons with disabilities have been experiencing more and more open doors in both the church and society. However, religious communities are an area of church life that has been somewhat ambivalent about welcoming disabled persons. An article by Carol Garibaldi Rogers in the Sept. 26, 1998, issue of America gives the impression that persons with disabilities are not accepted in active apostolic communities because they cannot engage in ministry that earns a stipend. "It's not a mercenary issue, it's a ministry issue," one sister is quoted as saying, "... if a woman was not able to minister, she would be steered elsewhere."

In fact, the admittance of qualified individuals with disabilities into religious communities is a complex question requiring much discussion and discernment on the part of both the aspirant and the community. The ability of the disabled person to engage in stipended ministry is certainly a legitimate concern. It is to be hoped, however, that this will not be the sole basis a community uses for admitting otherwise qualified candidates. By refusing to accept persons with disabilities, religious communities are depriving the church of effective ministers who not only reflect the passion of Jesus but people whose disability itself provides a precise point of connection with marginalized persons.

Many religious with disabilities and chronic illnesses are already working in a variety of ministries. They serve as spiritual directors, counselors, teachers, administrators. Some entered with their disability; others incurred it later. Some utilize government services such as Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides equipment such as scooters, hand controls and computers so that persons with disabilities can actualize their potential to become employed.

Every state has an Office of Vocational Rehabilitation; religious generally are eligible for these services. Also, with the rapid increases in computer technology, many more ministries are opening to religious with disabilities. The following brief sketches are just a few examples of religious with disabilities who not only serve the church but have also provided income for their communities. …