This was a difficult week for me. I was tremendously saddened to hear the story of the boy with autism who was excluded from church. I'm saddened that the situation came to the point where a restraining order was sought, as are many other Catholics, with and without disabilities, to whom I've talked. How did the situation come to that? It's a question I ask because I am a Catholic, not just a Catholic with a disability.
How very tragic it is that things have come to this point for all of us in our society: that courts of law are used to achieve resolution of issues involving people with disabilities. From a moral point of view, it's a disgrace to our society that we had to pass a law to make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. We need it. There are those who argue that it is unnecessary while simultaneously ignoring the barriers that force people with disabilities to jump through hoops to prove themselves on an unequal playing field.
I toil on that playing field every day. It sometimes feels as if I'm playing in the NFL without a helmet, the hits I take. It's very real that many obstacles still exist.
Anyone who tells you that our society (and that includes our churches) has arrived at inclusion, at full participation of people with disabilities, needs to sit down and talk with more people with disabilities. I address these remarks to members of the disability community as well as to those who don't have a disability: just because you know people with disabilities who have "made it" (or you have a disability and feel you have made it yourself) is not a reason to assume that everyone else is okay, nor is it a reason to blame those who haven't. It's much easier to ascribe to the philosophy that those who haven't made it just have a bad attitude or handle it wrong than to listen to real people tell their stories of everyday life. It is a diverse and complex community.
In the same way, although inclusion is simple as the right answer when we talk from a spiritual point of view, as a practical matter, it can be complex because of the great variation in what practicing inclusion means. As we are learning from the news stories, the needs of a family with a child with autism vary a great deal from a person who uses a wheelchair. To some, it may seem discouraging to even attempt to meet the needs of those who have different disabilities. How many times I've heard that said.
And yet, I'm here to tell you that it's really quite simple in a way that isn't often discussed. The solution oftentimes is to ask the person with a disability (or, if he or she cannot communicate independently, their family), what is needed to solve the issues that are presented. This needs to be done before matters get to the point where the needs of the community are in conflict with the needs of the person with the disability, before emotions run high, before situations become personalized. Failing to take this step in a timely manner is the number one reason inclusion fails in any given situation. This is why having a disability ministry in every parish is so important. It is only through the acknowledgment that inclusion is a real issue that needs to be addressed that it will be achieved. Let me explain what I mean.
Even though I have a disability, I've learned to recognize that when I'm around friends with other disabilities, I adjust to include them. When I travel with blind friends, I describe our surroundings. When I travel with paraplegic friends, they often assist me. When I'm with friends of short stature, I make sure towels in the bathroom are pulled down by the hotel employees. How did I learn this? By being around them. It is simple, yet clear to me that people with disabilities and those who live around them learn to be resourceful and creative so all are included. This is the role a disability ministry can play in each and every parish. And it's very important that we work toward this goal. Why?
Every one of us desires to be included with a yearning that is so deep, so passionate, so heartfelt that it cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand by another human being. It is because we are all spiritual beings, created equally by God and are meant to be brothers and sisters, living in community, each of us bringing what another cannot. As for inclusion, we can do for each other what we may initially think is impossible because God is present.
What is complex is that we have to redefine what and who is important. This means defying many of the social mores that are so entrenched- our attitudes toward those who we've been taught are less important than us, whose needs don't matter as much, whose presence is seen as a burden. That our time is too important, as Henri Nouwen thought when he first started to help Adam, a man with disabilities, with his daily care at L'Arche, a task that required more patience than he felt he could muster until he understood that there was nothing more important he could be doing than to minister to him, because Adam was God's beloved. Yes, this calls for us to rebel against what we may have unconsciously accepted: that those with disabilities don't belong in our communities, but should be kept out of sight or go "someplace else".
But there is nowhere else to go. That's why we need disability ministries in each parish, not just in each diocese. There is one community of God. We must move toward embracing, not merely tolerating, its members in both our churches and in our society at large.