Church must ensure participation of disabled, keynoter says

| May 9, 2013 | 0 Comments
This photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia of Pope Francis embracing 8-year-old Dominic Gondreau, who has cerebral palsy, captured the attention of people around the world. Gregorio Borgia, AP via CNS

This photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia of Pope Francis embracing 8-year-old Dominic Gondreau, who has cerebral palsy, captured the attention of people around the world. Gregorio Borgia, AP via CNS

A photo of Pope Francis embracing an 8-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that went viral on the Internet has brought new attention to an issue that the U.S. bishops have been talking about for years.

“[The photo] talks about the value of every person and the dignity of every single person,” said Jan Benton, director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, an office established to foster implementation of the “Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities.”

“We have loved those photos and shared them because he’s recognizing the beauty of that person and that they have worth and they have value,” she said.

Benton was the keynote speaker at an all-day workshop focusing on providing catechesis for children and adults with special needs April 25 at Guardian Angels in Oakdale. The event was sponsored by the Association of Coordinators and Religious Educators (A.C.R.E.) and included breakout sessions and other speakers.

Real-life training

Benton first worked with people with special needs as a catechist for children with intellectual disabilities in her home parish in Michigan. She also helped create a faith formation program for adults with disabilities.

Benton was studying for a degree in human development at the time and was able to enroll in special education classes.

While in college, she also worked at a nursing home. “I met a wonderful young woman in the nursing home with cerebral palsy who was in her 20s and I wondered why she was there,” she said. “I also had several family members with disabilities and this was all very formational for me, so I decided to move to Washington, D.C., to look at the policy end of the issue.”

Benton worked for a secular group for three years that was fighting for civil rights for people with disabilities. “It was perfect training,” she said, because she ended up serving on the U.S. Bishops’ Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability office opened in 1982 and Benton was hired as assistant director, moving up to executive director in 2004.

“It was perfect because it was the blending of my faith with the disability issues I was so interested in,” she said.

Rooted in Gospel values that affirm the dignity of every person, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability works collaboratively to ensure the meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of the life of the Church and society.

Even after 30 years, her office still gets calls from frantic parents who have been told there is no program for their disabled child to make their first Communion or confirmation, or they are having a problem with their Catholic school.

“That’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “We shouldn’t still be asking why; we should just be asking how. We should be saying, ‘You belong here, what do we need to do to make sure that your child can participate meaningfully?’ ”

“There are still parishes that don’t have sufficient access, like access to the sanctuary,” Benton said. “That’s something we still really push for because people think about getting in the door and maybe the bathroom, but they don’t take that next step to say, ‘How are you going to be able to participate? How are you going to serve as [an extraordinary minister of holy Communion]? How are you going to be priest with a disability and get up to the altar?’”

Providing access is very important to make people with disabilities feel welcome at their parish and events at other parishes. Calling attention to the fact that there are accessible features in the building goes a long way. Benton said it tells those with disabilities, “We’re thinking of you and we want to make sure you know that we want you here.”

Giving encouragement

Terri Hunt, director of faith formation at St. Richard in Richfield and A.C.R.E. chair, attended Benton’s breakout session on resources for serving children with disabilities.

“She gave us a great tour of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability website” (, Hunt said. “She really encouraged DREs, educators and parents to share ideas and resources to find what works for their students and children.”

In their letter, the bishops said: “If people with disabilities are to become equal partners in the Christian community, injustices must be eliminated and ignorance and apathy replaced by increased sensitivity and warm acceptance.”

“The leaders and the general membership of the Church must educate themselves to appreciate fully the contribution people with disabilities can make to the Church’s spiritual life,” they said. “They bring with them a special insight into the meaning of life; for they live, more than the rest of us perhaps, in the shadow of the cross. And out of their experience they forge virtues like courage, patience, perseverance, compassion and sensitivity that should serve as an inspiration to all Christians.”

A.C.R.E. was the first lay ministry organization in the archdiocese, established in 1973. With the support of the archdiocese, it strives to provide opportunities for spiritual, professional and personal growth and development.

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