Study: Special Needs Are Accommodated at U.S. Parishes

Parishes where people with disabilities serve in ministerial or leadership roles tend to be the most accommodating.

Archbishop Charles Chaput greets gift-bearers at a Mass for persons with disabilities and the deaf community.
Archbishop Charles Chaput greets gift-bearers at a Mass for persons with disabilities and the deaf community. (photo: Deaf Catholic Philly Facebook page)

WASHINGTON — Parishes where people with disabilities serve in ministerial or leadership roles tend to be the most accommodating toward those with special needs, a recent survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University has found.

“It’s a virtuous cycle,” said Steve Riley, executive director of Potomac Community Resources, a Maryland group that joined with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities and Department of Special Needs to commission the survey.

The more people with disabilities are active and known in a parish, Riley explained, the more attention and resources are directed to including and welcoming them. “With more visibility, there is more attention and involvement.”

Jesuit Father Tom Gaunt, CARA’s executive director, said the survey finding is both interesting and a bit of a puzzle.

“If I’m a pastor, is it that I invited someone [with a disability] to be on the parish council or a committee and, once there, they bring more to the forefront and inclusion of others, or is it the reverse — we start with including others [with disabilities] and, once included ... they start moving into parish council and other activities? Almost without fail, those two things go hand in hand.”

The CARA survey, the first of its kind for the Church in the United States, comes nearly four decades after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its 1978 “Pastoral Statement on Persons With Disabilities.” Riley said the survey, which was sent to 5,242 parishes and had a response rate of 15%, is important because it provides baseline data, not just anecdotal evidence.

It found that 96% of parishes have a wheelchair-accessible entrance and reserved parking for people with disabilities, and 87% have wheelchair-accessible restrooms.

Riley said those findings confirmed his suspicion that, like the general population, parishes often think in terms of structural changes like ramps, elevators and parking when considering how to accommodate people with disabilities.


All Facets of Parish Life

Although this represents progress and is commendable, Riley said to truly include parishioners with disabilities, accessibility must go beyond the church doors and extend into all facets of parish life, including liturgical ministries and religious education. This may require additional physical changes, such as building a ramp to the sanctuary and an adjustable ambo, or revisions in sacramental preparation to accommodate the needs of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Only about half of those responding to the CARA survey reported having wheelchair-accessible sanctuaries. In the area of catechesis, just 21% said they use special resources designed for students with disabilities, 63% adapt their current resources to accommodate such students, and 16% use the same resources without modification.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani, chairwoman of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Persons With Disabilities and Deaf Apostolate, applauded the survey’s positive findings.

“Overall, I think that there has been great progress, and it’s really wonderful to see the increase of awareness,” she said, citing such areas as wheelchair accessibility.

But the survey also highlighted her concerns about access to religious education for those with disabilities. Even in her archdiocese, where much has been done, she said she still meets parents whose children with disabilities have not been accommodated. “For them, it’s so disheartening and difficult, because they want their child with disabilities to have the same opportunities as a child without disabilities, and their child should have those same opportunities.”


Raising Awareness

According to the CARA study, attention to and inclusion of people with disabilities most often occurs in larger, suburban parishes with greater resources, Riley said. But given the study’s finding that the more people with disabilities are active and known in a parish, the more attention and resources are directed to including those with disabilities; and any parish, regardless of size or location, can seek out, promote and enroll in ministry or leadership those with disabilities.

Considering that the U.S. Census Bureau reports one in five Americans has a disability, most parishes should be able to identify parishioners with disabilities and reach out to them, Riley said.

Sherry Moitoza, director of social concerns at St. Rose of Lima parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, known for its outreach to parishioners with disabilities, agreed. She said although her parish is a large, suburban one, what it does could be duplicated anywhere. St. Rose started its “Accommodating Hearts Ministry” simply by raising awareness among parishioners that almost everyone knows someone with a disability and then calling a meeting to talk about ways to help people with disabilities.

At St. Rose of Lima, people with visual impairments read at Mass using Braille texts, a man with autism is responsible for closing Accommodating Hearts Ministry meetings with prayer, and other people with disabilities serve as ushers, acolytes and choir members.  

Moitoza said the biggest obstacle to serving people with disabilities is ignorance of what needs to be done. “The more you learn about people and interact with them and get to know them, the more you become comfortable, and it becomes easier for you to reach out and get involved.”


Creative Efforts

CARA’s Father Gaunt said the survey on accommodating people with disabilities revealed some remarkable and creative efforts by small parishes with limited resources. Jonathon Holland, primary investigator for the survey, said this included parishes that weren’t large enough to have a formal ministry or program, but reached out to accommodate just one person with a disability.

Father Gaunt said that although respondents to the survey expressed a need for financial resources, they also indicated they were working toward accommodation without them.

“They’re acting in a very positive way with the resources they have in this moment,” he said. “If more resources become available, they will be able to do more and make more modifications, but parishes are not waiting for somebody on high to say, ‘Do this.’ They’re doing it. It may be somewhat minimal, but ... what is in their power to do, they are doing.”

He said he sees parishes trying to include those with disabilities as part of a larger life agenda that focuses on the dignity and rights of every person.

“I think, across the Church, this has come through as a value loud and clear, again and again, in recent decades, and we see this in a broad way in these efforts.”

Riley said the key pieces of “actionable intelligence” gleaned from the study were those showing that size and location influence resources and that the level of participation by those with disabilities is tied to the presence of people with disabilities in key roles in the parish. Other takeaways were that pastors and parishes want resources and training in this area but are sometimes unaware of what exists and that seminary training should include ways to accommodate and welcome people with disabilities.

“There is room for a lot more activity, and the activity that can be done does not necessarily depend on having a lot of financial resources in the parish,” Riley said. “A lot of it is the promoting and identifying people with disabilities to kick-start that virtuous cycle.”

Two more parts of the survey — what dioceses and Catholic Charities organizations are doing to help people with disabilities — are still being reviewed and analyzed. Once those are complete, Riley said a template of “best practices” will be developed and shared with the Church in the U.S.


Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.