Conference highlights needs of disabled in the Church

November 12, 2013

HOUSTON — Cindi Swanson, of Naperville, Ill., said she went to six parishes before she found one that would include her son, who has Down syndrome, in Continuing Christian Education (CCE) classes. 

Some parishes offered a segregated program for children with disabilities, she conceded, but she wanted full inclusion, just as her other two sons enjoyed.

“All we’ve ever done is fight for him to be included,” Swanson said. 

Renee Wood has spent most of her adult life advocating for herself and the unborn, despite her own severe physical disabilities caused by cerebral palsy.

“We need to let people know we can contribute in our own way,” said Wood, of Toledo, Ohio, who proudly admitted to having spent 250 days in jail protesting abortion. 

Father Troy Powers, wheelchair bound due to a genetic condition and complications from kidney disease, has concerns about how he will continue to serve as a priest in Sacramento, Calif. “I’m trying to sort out what my needs are in the future,” said Powers, who has also lost a leg. 

Swanson, who is blind, Wood and Powers were amongst those who had come from far and wide to attend the three-day National Catholic Partnership on Disability conference Nov. 1 to 3. 

The conference, titled “Where Faith & Disability Meet,” was the first national conference in about a decade, and judging by the buzz from organizers, speakers and attendees, it was long overdue. “It has given me renewed hope,” said Diane Frazee, who had traveled from Toledo, to learn more about how to include children with disabilities in Catholic education.

The mother of a 36-year-old daughter with profound mental and physical disabilities said she wants her daughter, who has been baptized, to one day receive the Sacraments. 

“It’s part of our family’s faith, and up to now she’s really been on the sidelines,” Frazee said. “When I get home, I will investigate the possibilities of her receiving some of the additional Sacraments.” 

Conference co-chair Charleen Katra, associate director for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, which includes the Ministry for Persons with Disabilities, said the conference offered an opportunity for leaders to share resources, information and strategies to support and welcome people with disabilities into the Church.

Experts from across the country covered a range of topics, from family support and healthcare public policy to provision of community resources and inclusion in Catholic schools. 

Speaking on the “Sacramental Preparation for Students with Developmental Disabilities,” Madonna Wojtaszek-Healy told a crowded room about how she helped her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, participate in services and CCE classes. She advised feeding children with information from an early age, using simplified materials, repetition and practice. She said understanding the abilities of each child also is key.
“You have to know the person you’re working with,” Wojtaszek-Healy said.

“Don’t assume that because someone can’t tell you, that they haven’t felt something.”

For one group of people, the conference provided an opportunity to raise awareness about their plight and learn more about resources that might be available. 

Wheelchair-bound members of Living Hope Wheelchair Association, a local, nonprofit serving people with spinal cord injuries who lack insurance and a stable income, hope to expand their base of support.

“We really have desperate needs,” Francisco Arguelles, executive director, said, about their needs for basic items, such as diapers, catheters and prescription drugs.