As I finalize plans for this year's Bishop's Mass With Persons With Disabilities, a responsibility of our office for the last 21 years, I am moved to reflect on the role of persons with disabilities in liturgical ministry in the average parish.
Have you ever experienced a blind lector reading in Braille? A deaf person signing and voicing a talk after Communion? How about receiving Eucharist from an Extraordinary Minister of Communion in a wheelchair? Does that even happen at your parish? Perhaps, if you don't see them, you think there are no people like that called to ministry in your community. Advocates for those with disabilities would challenge that. Perhaps those with disabilities just don't feel invited or accepted - and maybe the architecture of your worship space sets expectations that are off-putting. (A raised platform for the sanctuary with no ramp, for example.)
What are the barriers to persons with disabilities having a perception that they COULD participate in a ministry in your parish church - both physical and psychological? Most parishes are not like one in our diocese which was specifically built with accessibility to ministries in mind - the ambo raises and lowers to accomodate persons of differing size, and even in wheelchairs. The sanctuary is at the bottom center level, with no steps. Most of all, there is a climate of acceptance. Young people with Down Syndrome read and function as altar servers and more. This parish has truly learned the disability advocate mantra about the dignity of those with disabilities: "First, see the person, then the disability."
A recent series of webinars on liturgical accessibility from National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities highlighted the situations that prevent or make possible participation by all. Take a look at http://www.ncpd.org/webinars/2009-03-10 and http://www.ncpd.org/webinars/2009-07-15 (scroll down to bottom of page to download transcripts or view recordings.)
So, back to the questions above about "have you ever experienced...?" On Sunday, October 11 at 11 a.m. at our Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, we will experience all of those things. Persons with disabilities of all types will take their rightful places, celebrating the Eucharist with the Bishop and the community of the Diocese of Joliet. For one hour, we will truly celebrate what the Bishops said in their 1978 Pastoral on Disabilities - "we are one flock that has one shepherd."