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Experts see hope for inclusion of Catholics with disabilities

At his home in Saginaw, Michigan, 45-year-old John Kraemer spends hours each day at his craft and vocation — building elaborate models of Catholic churches, then filling them with figures for display at various parishes.

His materials are simple: 25,000 brightly colored LEGOs.

“My work is a prayer,” said Kraemer, who has mild cerebral palsy and visual and hearing impairments. “I’m sharing my passion for the faith through the (LEGO) bricks. And the figures in the church include people in wheelchairs, power chairs … older people, service dogs.”

The point is to show that “all are welcome in this Church. … People often see themselves sitting inside the project, (which) … is not a reflection of the past, but a prayer for the future,” Kraemer said.

Those seeking to include people with disabilities in the life of the Church say the horizon is hopeful, despite lingering challenges.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Charleen Katra said. “There has been a lot of movement (forward) over the last couple of decades.” She is the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Persons with Disabilities and former chair of the NCPD board of directors, said, “I feel like we are making pretty good progress, and what makes my heart happy is to see parishes (aware) that this effort to include people with disabilities is part of the everyday mission for the Church.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 26% of adults in the U.S. have a disability — 11.1% have serious difficulty with mobility, 10.9% experience significant issues with cognition, 5.7% are deaf or hard of hearing, 4.9% have a vision disability and 3% have a self-care disability that impedes dressing or bathing.

Katra and Sister Schipani said the continental phase of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality helped to highlight the concerns and insights of this significant demographic within the Church.

“The synod was a good first step,” Sister Schipani said. “The process was particularly helpful, especially listening to the stories of people with disabilities and to how they see the efforts of the Church. The only way we make progress is by listening to the stories.”

When voices of persons with disabilities are heard, pastoral approaches “(move) from inclusion to belonging,” Katra said.

She has asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to embrace that perspective by issuing a new pastoral statement on people with disabilities, one that updates the bishops’ original document in 1978.

People with disabilities can be seen as “agents of evangelization, not a subject of evangelization,” Katra said. “Their vocation is to serve the Church, not to be served. My suggestion for the new one is to focus more on abilities than disabilities and … a sense of belonging, at every level of human feeling and experience.”

Catechetical and faith formation materials still need to be made more accessible, said Sister Schipani, who developed the “Religious Signs for Families” app to help deaf children and family members learn to pray in American Sign Language.

Welcoming those with mental illness, Alzheimer’s and dementia is important as the number of affected individuals grows, Katra said.

“The parish can be and should be a place of hope,” said Katra. “It behooves the Church to be that safe place, that home for people to come and be accepted where they are, so we can as Pope Francis says so beautifully … journey with them to a better place.”

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