How to Minister to People with Disabilities

catholic church disabilities

I entered the Catholic Church four years ago. I went from being Agnostic to Protestant to Catholic. My conversion gives me a unique perspective on the Faith. Likewise, my disability also gives me a unique perspective from which I view the world. As a young adult woman who happens to have Cerebral Palsy, I have a unique voice to offer the Church. As a part of the disabled minority, I often feel invisible in the church. I often feel that my struggles with faith and the Church go unaddressed. I want to tell about my struggles. Other Catholics with disabilities need to know that they are not alone. Furthermore, other non-disabled Catholic need insight so that they can help alleviate the struggles.

The Struggles I Face

1. Healing and Knowing God Loves Me

At a young age, I struggled with the concept of healing. My doubts began in middle school. A well-intended Christian confronted me about my disability. He offered to pray for me. He said if I had faith, God would heal me. At that moment, I felt weak. I felt that I was born this way. Why would God allow me to be disabled and refuse to heal me? Suddenly God no longer felt like a loving father.

It would take years before I’d be able to come to grips with miracles and healing. Those who identify as disabled often find the healing narratives challenging. They often depict a reality unknown and irreconcilable to persons who are disabled.

2. Barriers to Participation

Often a disabled person will struggle to take part in church life. For those with physical disabilities, the barriers are primarily architectural. For example, in older churches, steps make portions of the church inaccessible. In fact, during youth ministry training, my youth minister had booked a room that was up a flight of steps. Furthermore, I have been to parishes where none of the bathrooms were wide enough for a chair.

For other disabilities, it’s less architectural and more a lack of accommodations. For example, a deaf person may not be able to take part fully in Mass due to a lack of a sign language interpreter. In fact, one member told me that her deaf brother had left the Church for this exact reason.

3. Feeling Invisible

When you are the only one in the pews, it’s easy to feel invisible or left out. This was a major problem for me growing up Catholic. In religious education classes, I didn’t get the same accommodations I got when I went to public school. Thus, I wasn’t able to take part as much. Also, most youth groups have physical activities as “fun.”

I have made friends in the Church through involvement. Still, I don’t know any other disabled Catholics.

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Luckily for me, I had a radical encounter with Jesus Christ. This encounter led me back to His Church. Yet, I worry about others. How many disabled people describe themselves as fallen away Catholics? Here are three ways we can help.

Embrace the Cross

We can help persons with disabilities to embrace the cross of suffering. We can listen when they express anger, doubt, and frustration. You shouldn’t be so quick to offer to heal because suffering makes you uncomfortable. Rather, you should pray for healing only after discernment. Better yet you should ask them what they need prayer for, what their actual struggles are. Please don’t say that if they had faith, it would be better.

Give Those with Disabilities a Voice

People with disabilities should have a say in church decisions when it affects them. Parishes should make services known to disabled people. For example, parishes could list a number in the bulletin that one could call if sign language is needed. Parishes need to make sure alternative routes and entrances are clearly marked. Likewise, parishes should make sure accessible routes are unlocked and unobstructed. Ushers should know how to accommodate a person with a disability.

Be Inclusive

Parishes should have activities that everyone can partake in regardless of physical ability. Catechist programs should include accommodations for those who are disabled. I am happy to report that some parishes now offer this, but it’s still relatively few. If you sit next to a person who’s disabled in Mass or at an event, talk to them. Get to know them. You should avoid being overly nice or inauthentic with them.

The Dignity of the Human Person

As Catholics, we’re called to uphold the inherent dignity of every person. Every person has inherent worth. Every baptized person shares in the divine office of Priest, Prophet, and King. Thus, our parishes need to make room for disabled voices. We have gifts that we can share with the bride of Christ. We should not let our struggles keep us from the love of Christ.

Are you someone with a disability? What has your experience been like as a Catholic?

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Sarah Bailey writes on the joys and struggles of being a Catholic convert. In her free time, she enjoys reading, playing board games, and going to concerts. You can find out more about her here.

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  • Reply
    December 20, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you for this important post! It’s so easy to have blinders on and forget to see our buildings, hear our words, and experience our activities through someone else’s perspective, whether that be a person with disabilities, someone from another country, someone who is new to the faith, etc. Your words give us good reminders and ideas.

  • Reply
    Andi Andrzejewski
    March 18, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Yes, I am a person with disabilities- several. All are “invisiable” and I am sick of the way folks like me get treated, Each person is an individual and each needs different accomodations _ my deaf sister has been told “go sit in the handcapped section – if you are handicapped” the “handicapped section was behind a wall of glass, across the chuch at a 45degreee angle to the altar and more from the readers– who, exactly, is she to lip read — but the seats she COULD lip rid from were exclusively for Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister–no signs we’re just suppoed to know. I have severe arthristis, ADHD, And emothional difficuluties and have been told I am not alllowed to sit in the handicapped section. because it’s “only gor wheelchairs” ( note NONE of the other people sitting there had assitive devices, they wer just older than me) yeah, let’s be “inclusive” but realize that not all disabilities are visable — or even make sense to anyone not living them

  • Reply
    June 11, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    I struggle with both visible and less visible disabilities, some of which cause me great shame and embarrassment. I feel as though I don’t have much of a place in the church, though I have never stopped practicing my faith. I feel very lonely; I don’t even feel I have a saint who understands me. I wish there would be more of an organized ministry to, for, and by people with disabilities. I also sometimes resent that when people with disabilities meet the Pope, they always seem to be those who can’t speak for themselves. They get patted on the head and their caregivers are praised for their self sacrifice. It’s like we exist to be “normal” people’s ticket to heaven, whether or not we feel like hell.

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