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Disabilities no obstacle at welcoming, supportive, ‘transformed’ Illinois parish

NAPERVILLE, IL (Catholic Explorer) - The lives of persons with disabilities “can literally be transformed by people who are willing to welcome, receive, befriend, support and walk alongside them,” said Erik Carter, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

INCLUSION - “How many people of faith will go through their lives without meeting and really getting to know this segment of their own community?

INCLUSION - “How many people of faith will go through their lives without meeting and really getting to know this segment of their own community?" Erik Carter says of the disabled. "How many miss the opportunity to receive the ministry of these individuals?”


The 34-year-old researcher and public speaker served as keynote presenter during the daylong “Congregational Inclusion: From the Liturgical Table to the Church Picnic Table” program Jan. 12 at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville. Over 100 people from various denominations attended the event.

Throughout his morning talk, Carter, who has penned books on the subject of inclusion, attempted to explain how supporting those with special needs at faith communities can have a positive impact on all parties. “For congregations who are willing to become a place of hospitality, belonging and sanctuary for all of their community, you should expect to be transformed,” said the academic.

Separated no more

In his remarks, Carter explained that the Church has traditionally ministered to people with disabilities apart from the rest of the congregation. “As more and more congregations begin to expand their welcome, a recurring theme of these efforts is that communities are strengthened by the presence and participation of people with disabilities,” he said. “We all have gifts and talents designed to complement those of others, all working in tandem to further God’s kingdom.”

The presenter holds a bachelor’s degree in Christian education. He also completed a master’s degree and doctoral studies in the area of severe disabilities. Carter said, however, he has learned more about his faith over the years by the examples of those with disabilities he has encountered. In his talk, he told stories about several people who have inspired his confidence in the Lord. “My point is that they were not unlikely messengers at all … quite the opposite,” he said.

“How many people of faith will go through their lives without meeting and really getting to know this segment of their own community? How many miss the opportunity to receive the ministry of these individuals?” asked Carter.

In a conversation with the Catholic Explorer, Carter, a member of Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wis., mentioned his delight in seeing the concepts of congregational inclusion “playing out” at Holy Spirit Catholic Community. “They are clearly modeling what inclusion could be at churches,” added the husband and father of two youngsters.

Inclusion programs not always feasible

Prior to the program, Cindi Birse-Swanson, special needs coordinator at Holy Spirit Catholic Community, noted the event had been in the planning stages for more than a year. “I’m really excited about it,” she told the Explorer. Sponsored by the Naperville parish and the Catholic Education Foundation of the Diocese of Joliet, the conference was geared toward parish leaders, she noted.

“It’s important for the whole church to support this,” Joyce Donahue, coordinator of special needs for the Joliet diocesan Religious Education Office, told the Explorer as she mulled over the concept of inclusion at parishes. The “first choice should always” be for children to learn at their home parishes rather than partaking in offsite religious education programs that accommodate special needs. On the other hand, she said, she understands inclusion programs might not be feasible for all parishes in the diocese.

A member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Joliet, Madonna Wojtasek-Healy, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology, served as a speaker at the inclusion event. The second grade teacher at St. Mary Immaculate School in Plainfield has consulted with the Joliet diocesan Religious Education Office on matters concerning children with disabilities. She talked about exclusion as a social justice concern.

A 21-year-old woman with Down syndrome, Bridget Brown also delivered a rousing speech during the event. The young member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, who speaks often at various venues about the importance of inclusion, said that parishioners must work tirelessly to “invite, welcome and support” persons with disabilities.

Brown’s mother, Nancy, a social worker, encouraged the people to invite persons with special needs to serve on parish committees in an effort to get their perspectives on parish matters.

‘Jesus saw their gifts and called them out’

Meanwhile, Franciscan Sister Marci Blum, director of the Ministry to Persons with Disabilities Office for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, offered her insights during the event. Over the last decade, the people involved in her ministry have crafted “concrete” techniques for including persons with special needs, she told the Explorer before her presentation. During her talk, the religious, who has served as director of the ministry for 13 years, discussed her archdiocese’s model for including everyone in parish life.

Sister Blum mentioned there are over 20 passages in the New Testament that involve persons with physical, mental, emotional and social impairments. “Jesus saw their gifts and called them out.” She encouraged the participants to help members of their congregations follow Christ’s example.

Offering some practical suggestions, Sister Blum asked the people to find out about the needs of people through sending letters to parishioners. She told them about an accessibility assessment that she and her staff designed to help church leaders evaluate ease of access to church buildings. The document also includes steps to help correct problems. In addition, the nun endorsed the idea of adopting a parish advocacy program to benefit parishioners with special needs.

As for teaching religion to children with special needs at parishes, Sister Blum said she and her staff have developed various strategies for use in the classroom. “We have to learn to teach differently,” she said. “It takes some time, but it’s really worth it.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Explorer(www.catholicexplorer.com), official newspaper of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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