We need to make room for people with disabilities In our lives, schools, and church communities.
Society will continue to view disability as a disease to be eradicated unless we make room in our hearts to love the other.
Yet so many times I’ve felt like an afterthought in so many parishes.
Luckily for me, my faith is strong enough to persevere. Others have not been so lucky. One such instance sticks out in my mind.
I was studying bioethics at Yale University. One of the participants was also in a wheelchair. One day he came up to me. He said, “we need to do lunch; I want to know why you kept the faith given all the issues”
Sisters, I wish I had gone to lunch with him, but time was not on our side. I do sympathize with his concerns. Let me tell you about my struggles at two different parishes.
The parish first came to my attention when I saw an advertisement for Young Adult adoration. I decided to attend. Being new, I got lost and arrived late. I don’t know if arriving early or on time would have helped the circumstances I am about to describe.
So I walked to the parish and my heart dropped. There were stairs to get into the parish. Now I had been warned by multiple people that this parish was inaccessible. Not willing to give up yet, I looked around and saw a handicapped symbol in-between the priory and the parish. I walked down the path with my friend. We came to a door, which led to a tiny elevator. Not knowing what floor to choose, we tried various options. Suddenly the elevator opened to reveal a floor on top of stairs and a door. Unsure of what to do or even where we were, I sent my friend to find someone.
She found one of the priests. I say, “I am here for adoration. We weren’t sure whether this door leads to the sanctuary or not. “ He opens the door to reveal the front of the sanctuary. There was a woman at the ambo speaking. To my embarrassment, I had to walk in front of her to get to a small cut out in the front pew. Guess you can’t hide when you have a disability.
For starters, when I attend mass I struggle to find a designated handicapped spot. The first row, which is regular chairs and not pews, has been claimed by people with disabilities. Yet the people in wheelchairs are responsible for moving their own chair. At least I can only assume since nobody offers to move the chair for me.
Because I bring my own chair so to speak, It’s not easy for me to access the hymn book and missal. Yet I love to sing. Luckily for me, I have a knack for memorizing song lyrics and song tones. Since my parish reuses a lot of songs, I find it easy to remember songs and sing along. I also do the mass reading ahead of time. Yet not having easy access hymn book and no offer to help makes me feel unwanted.
Making Room: Small Changes to Welcome People, Who are Disabled
So what can parishes do to make room for those with a disability? I would like to offer four small changes that parishes can make to help people with disabilities.
1. Easily Accessible Doors
Here in Virginia Beach, we are blessed in that most parishes have automatic doors. I understand that automatic doors can be expensive to install and take away from traditional architecture. My solution is much simpler. Have greeters or Ushers hold the door open for people. Yes I could ask the greeters and I have, but why are they not trained to automatically do this is mystifying. Second, if St. Mary’s had had a greeter, it would have helped me know where to go. Not sure how I would have managed by myself.
2. Easy Access to Hymn Books
If you are going to have a designated handicapped space, make sure the hymn books can be reached by a person in a wheelchair. Make sure your staff is trained to ask if assistance is needed. For selfish reasons, I do prefer projectors or programs even though it takes away from the aesthetic at Mass.
3. Advertise Services in the Bulletin
One time when giving my testimony, a friend of mine said that her brother was deaf. He was no longer practicing his faith due to not being able to participate in the Mass. When I asked why the parish never provided a sign language interpreter, she responded that she didn’t know such services existed. While parishes may find it expensive to pay for a sign language interpreter for every Mass, It may be helpful to advertise that such service is available as needed. This also applies to Religious education classes, where those with intellectual disabilities may need adaptations or additional help. I know that certain parishes offer a buddy system, which is helpful.
4. Ushers Aware of The Handicapped Section
One time I traveled to Atlanta and decided to visit a local parish. Upon arriving we were greeted by an usher. We asked the usher, “Is there a section for me to sit?” He replied that he did not know. Discouraged my friend and I looked for the handicapped section. Ushers need to be trained on answering basic accessibility questions.
I hope that these small changes may help you consider where your own parish can be more welcoming. Sometimes people, who are able-bodied, take certain things for granted. Unless you are disabled or hang out with disabled people, there are aspects of life that you all take for granted. Thus, I, as a disabled Catholic, strive to bring these aspects to the light for the benefit of the community.