home events current issue resources
  around the church archive marketplace subscribe
Beyond Accessibility  
Corinna Laughlin  
As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me." And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David, have pity on me." Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage; get up, he is calling you" (Mark 10: 46-49).

Jesus rarely reacts as his disciples expect. The righteous get hard words, while the sick and the sinners get a compassionate welcome. When Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, the crowd tells him to be quiet. But Jesus says to them, "Call him." And when the people speak to Bartimaeus again, their blindness has been removed. Instead of a nuisance, they recognize in Bartimaeus someone called by Jesus: "Take courage . . . he is calling you."

"Call him." Jesus is giving this instruction to the Church today, still challenging us to extend the welcome of Christ to those whom we are keeping on the margins of the community, without even realizing it. "Call him": they are words we need to hear in the ongoing work of inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S. bishops urged parishes to move beyond accessibility in their outreach to people with disabilities. The Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities gave a call to action: "It is not enough merely to affirm the rights of people with disabilities. We must actively work to make them real in the fabric of modern society"(#10). Physical access to the church building is only the beginning. "People can also play a more active role in the liturgy if provided with proper aids and training. Blind parishioners can serve as lectors, for example, and deaf parishioners as special ministers of the Eucharist. We look forward to the day when more individuals with disabilities are active in the full-time, professional service of the Church, and we applaud recent decisions to accept qualified candidates for ordination or the religious life in spite of their significant disabilities" (#24).

This teaching has been reiterated in more recent Church documents. Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (2000), instructs that in new church buildings the tabernacle (#74), the altar (#59) and the ambo (#60) be accessible to wheelchairs. The implication is that persons with disabilities will not simply have access to the sacraments, but that they will take on roles of leadership in the liturgy.

The Church has come to realize gradually that persons with disabilities are more than objects of the Church's charitable mission. They are also subjects, "active agents in ministry," children of God who are called to "enrich the People of God with the gifts entrusted to them by the Lord to render his Bride resplendent" (Preparation for the Jubilee III). Persons with disabilities share the responsibilities of all the baptized: to help build up the body of Christ through lives of prayer and service.

To assert the equal rights of persons with disabilities is not to deny their difference. On the contrary, the Church teaches that this difference is a gift to the community. "Disability is not a punishment; indeed it is a privilege, which God uses to manifest his love and crown all with the glory of the resurrection" (Preparation I). Persons with disabilities have a special ability to preach the gospel without saying a word. All of us are broken, but most of us have become adept at hiding our brokenness. People with disabilities encourage us not to be afraid of our crosses, but rather to bring them with us to the liturgy: to let them become instruments of grace. We do not have to show only our best side to God.

More than most, the person with disabilities is a living witness to the God who chooses the weak and lifts up the lowly. "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" (Pastoral Statement 13). The person with disabilities challenges our limited definitions of the human person.

Attitudes to Avoid
In December 1999, the Pontifical Council for the Family called a Vatican Conference on the role of the family in the development of persons with disabilities. Conference participants identified four negative attitudes that get in the way of the full development of children with disabilities. While the focus was the family, the same four attitudes can impact the parish family and get in the way of the ministry of persons with disabilities.

REJECTION of the person with disabilities is rarely obvious. But rejection happens when parents blame each other for the disability of their child, and rejection happens when parishes deny the disability by behaving as though it is not there.

FEAR can paralyze families, preventing them from adapting and taking positive action when a child with disabilities is born. In parishes, the fear of doing something wrong can scare us into doing nothing.

OVER PROTECTION out of love can prevent children with disabilities from discovering how much they can do for themselves. The same attitude can inhibit the growth of persons with disabilities in the liturgical ministries.

RESIGNATION of children and adults with disabilities. Resignation, the spiritual equivalent of breaking even, is not enough. Growth only happens when families accept reality joyfully. In the same way, unless the parish welcomes persons with disabilities with joy, it will be hard for joy to come with liturgical ministry.

Attitudes to Encourage
So what should parishes do as they welcome persons with disabilities in the liturgical ministries? As Jesus said to the crowd, "CALL." Society provides access to persons with disabilities-but often as observers rather than as participants. As a result, many people with disabilities continue to experience isolation. A specific invitation to become actively involved in the liturgy means a lot. If you think a person can be a good usher, reader, server, or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, let him or her know!

STRETCH AND TEACH. The community needs to be flexible. Changes may be required. If the ambo is not accessible to readers in wheelchairs, for example, adaptations may need to be made. Catechesis can help the community welcome these changes and the new life they bring.

COMMUNICATE. Take time to communicate with the new liturgical ministers. Do not be afraid to let them know if changes need to be made. People with developmental disabilities often have behavioral issues. Parents and friends can help you find effective ways to communicate. Whatever you do, don't pretend the difficulties are non-existent.

INTEGRITY. The liturgy is only a beginning in involving persons with disabilities in the life of the parish. Are people with disabilities also welcomed to serve in other aspects of parish life-as catechists, as pastoral council members, on school boards, on renovation committees? People with physical disabilities have as many gifts to bring to such ministries as those without. And those with developmental disabilities can often bring a wisdom that could enrich the community. Let the involvement of people with disabilities reach beyond symbolic representation in the liturgy.

Jean Vanier, founder of the l'Arche communities for people with developmental disabilities, urges a redefinement of inclusion.

"I am not just saying that we should be kind to such people because they are human beings," he writes in Becoming Human (1998). "Nor is it a question of 'normalizing' them in order that they can be 'like us,' participate in church services, and go to the movies and the local swimming pool. When I speak of the inclusion of those who are marginalized I am affirming that they have a gift to give us all, to each of us as individuals, to the larger forms of human organization, and to society, in general. The excluded, I believe, live certain values that we all need to discover and to live ourselves before we can become truly human" (83-84).

When Jesus told the crowd to call Bartimaeus, their eyes were opened: instead of a blind beggar, they saw a person, a human being with a name and with a call. And Bartimaeus, too, was transformed. He became a disciple: from that time on Bartimaeus "followed him on his way."

•  The Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities, November 1978, USCCB Publishing.
•  Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities (1998), a ten-point summary of the 1978 document.
•  The 1995 Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Person with Disabilities, USCCB Publishing.
•  The "Preparation for the Jubilee of the Disabled," http://www.vatican.va
•  Pope John Paul II's homily for the Jubilee of the Disabled, http://www.vatican.va
•  "Conclusions of a Vatican Conference on the Family and Integration of the Disabled," http://www.vatican.va
•  Becoming Human, Jean Vanier, (Paulist Press, 1998).
[Resources located on the Web may be moved by their owners, rendering established links as unusable. If the links above fail, please consider searching for the resources using your favorite search engine.]

Corinna Laughlin
is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington.
© Copyright 2006-2023
privacy  contact us  www.LTP.org