Are People with Disabilities Welcome at Your Parish?

Making parish life accessible to everyone is essential for a single reason: Because what we do matters

Pope Francis with the disabled in St. Peter's Square for the Jubilee Audience on March 12, 2016.
Pope Francis with the disabled in St. Peter's Square for the Jubilee Audience on March 12, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

In 1978, the US Catholic Bishops wrote, “For most Catholics the community of believers is embodied in the local parish. The parish is the door to participation for individuals with disabilities, and it is the responsibility of the pastor and lay leaders to make sure that this door is always open.” Forty years later, the doors are still – sometimes literally – locked for many Catholics with disabilities.

In a few short minutes of conversation prompted by a video about the need for accessibility, Emily DeArdo (from Opening the Roof) and Rebecca Frech (mother of WCMX champion skater Ella Frech) compiled a short list of areas where Catholic parishes often fall short in making sure all parishioners can participate in parish life. Some of these adaptations are astonishing simple:

  • Microphones (yes, just turning on the mic and using it makes a difference for a hearing-impaired listener)
  • Telecoil systems
  • Wheelchair-accessible confessionals
  • Face-to-face confession (for those who need visual contact to understand speech)
  • Braille missals
  • Large-print missals
  • Plugs in the nave for power chairs and portable oxygen concentrators
  • Adult-sized changing tables
  • Power buttons for doors
  • Bathroom stalls large enough for a wheelchair to turn around in...

And that’s just getting started. Parishes vary widely, from those that offer interpreters for the deaf and extensive support for children with special needs, to parishes in which families are literally told they are “on their own” for adaptive catechesis. Sometimes attempts at providing support go awry, such when a diocese has an office that will assist you with getting an interpreter for Mass, but the only contact information assumes you can hear well enough to use the telephone.

If some changes to “open the doors” are expensive and require advanced planning, other accommodations, such as listing an email address (or a phone number that accepts text messages), cost nothing at all.


You Don’t Need Permission to Care about Accessibility

In that same discussion with Rebecca and Emily, I shared my frustration with a parish that had locked all its wheelchair-accessible entrances, leaving those who can’t use stairs to wait outside on the sidewalk until an able-bodied person came along to go open an accessible door from the inside. 

“Are you in a wheelchair, Jen?” a longtime online friend asked me. 


My friend might have been curious, or concerned (we’ve met in real life, and I was a walking-person then as now), or maybe she was looking for someone she could ask specific questions about wheelchair access to.

But many people feel that you need some kind of Special Person Pass to talk about or get involved with access issues. Someone may mention their own or a loved one’s disability as a reason they are particularly concerned about a given barrier. But even if you yourself do not know a single soul who has a disability, making our parishes accessible is a concern for all Catholics. Just by virtue of being Catholic, you have a right and obligation to get involved in “opening the doors.”


Be Led Person You’re Trying to Assist

There’s a saying in the world of disability activism, “Nothing about me without me.” This is common sense. If your goal is to make it possible for someone to attend Mass, receive the sacraments, lead or participate in parish ministries, grow in their faith, and generally become a regular part of parish life ... the person you are trying to include is the expert on what his or her needs are.

Technologies change. Individuals vary. So for example, in an opening conversation with parents and their child, a director of religious education might share samples of Loyola Press’s adaptive faith formation resources. Those materials might be the exact solution the family needs, or maybe they are just a discussion-starter in working through what is and is not helpful, and how the parish can put together an appropriate formation program.


Be Ready to Learn of New Needs

Likewise, your generically wheelchair-accessible bathroom might not be usable for a particular parishioner. The parish maintenance team can find out what changes, often very minor, will make a difference. For a friend of mine in college, the very expensive, high-tech adaptation he needed to close a door was that you tie a string to the door handle for him to grab and pull. Surely someone on your maintenance crew has string.

Sometimes the challenge in overcoming accessibility issues is literally a fear of string: It’s weird. It messes up the “look” of the parish property. Perhaps we really would rather someone be dead than need string on the door.

You may be pushed to recognize needs you’ve never thought about before. When Rebecca Frech mentioned adult changing tables, that was literally the first time in my life I had ever heard of them.

I thought about it: Yes, I’ve seen some parishioners at Mass who might well use such a thing . . . but they aren’t involved in parish life. Why not?  Likely because they have to go home just to take care of basic personal hygiene. If you had to go home to use the bathroom, you wouldn’t be at many parish events either.


How Much is this Going to Cost?

Cost is a big concern for many parishes. In considering budgeting decisions, there are several factors to consider:

Have we in fact carried out all the low-tech, low-cost solutions available to us?  When I think for example of the parish that locked its wheelchair-accessible entrances . . . unlocking a door is not expensive. A parishioner on Twitter requested her parish print out the prayers of the faithful for herso she could follow along each week at Mass.  That’s not an expensive accommodation – just make a second copy for the parishioner to grab off the ambo before Mass.

Have we identified manageable upgrades and made a plan to carry them out?  If there isn’t good wheelchair seating in the parish church right now, you can literally get out a saw and cut a few spaces in the pews. If a full telecoil system for the entire building isn’t in the budget this year, a partial system can be installed in the meantime, and you can put placards on seats reserved for those who need to use the system. When you are serious about “opening the doors,” it is usually possible to cut a planned expense elsewhere to pay for minor upgrades, or find a parishioner willing to donate the needed supplies and carpentry or engineering skills.

Are we building our wish list for our next budget cycle?  Sometimes “budget limitations” is code for “we can’t be bothered with you.” Other times, there really is no way to come up with the funding to cover a much-needed and much-desired improvement. How do you know the difference?  When you really want to make a change, you plan for it. You save up your money, you look for new sources of funding, and as soon as the opportunity presents, you pounce.


Don’t Waste Your Time

What is the point in “opening the doors”?  Is the goal to make ourselves feel better?  To show what great Christians we are?  No. Making parish life accessible to everyone is essential for a single reason: Because what we do matters.

If the class you are teaching, the group you are leading, the Mass you are praying, or the sermon you are preaching isn’t important . . . why are you doing it at all?  Why waste good time and energy doing “church stuff” if no one needs it anyway?

Oh, but it does matter, you say? Then your work matters to everyone. If your First Communion textbook is valuable for faith formation, it is valuable even to your blind student. If your sermon is valuable for instruction and edification, it’s worth being heard even by your deaf listeners. If your third order is valuable for spiritual growth, it’s valuable even to someone who uses a wheelchair.

When we choose not to make our churches accessible, what we are saying is, “This is not important. You don’t need this. Go do something else with your time.”

Catholicism is not one lifestyle choice among many other equally good options. “Opening the doors” isn’t just about accommodating a few people with their troublesome problems. It is about recognizing that what Catholics do is vital. And so we don’t lock people out.