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Your Local Parish: A Welcoming Home for All

My family always sticks out like a sore thumb when we visit a new parish. No matter how quietly we try to enter the church, heads always turn, ushers always rush over, and sometimes there’s some tricky negotiations to be made on where we can sit. We’re not trying to cause a scene, but the fact that the two youngest of our five children use power wheelchairs to get around means visiting an unfamiliar building is always fraught with uncertainty.

Our children’s disabilities are quite visible, and can’t be ignored. If a building isn’t wheelchair accessible, we simply can’t go inside as a family. It’s very clear what is needed to make a building more welcoming and accessible: a ramp or elevator. But it's not always so straightforward. Catholic parents of disabled children need a wide array of accommodations depending on their children’s unique physical and intellectual disabilities. It can be hard to know how to ask for help at your parish when your child is disabled, and it can be hard for parishes who want to be more inclusive to know exactly what special needs families need.

Catholic parents of disabled children need a wide array of accommodations depending on their children’s unique physical and intellectual disabilities.

If you are the parent of a child with disabilities you can learn how to effectively advocate for your child at your parish. It’s not a matter of making loud demands. It comes down to building community and relationships. Chances are, your pastor and fellow parishioners want to make your family feel welcome but they don’t know how, or don't understand the unique needs of your child. Through open communication, you can help inform and help make your parish a more welcoming church for people of all abilities.

If you’re at a parish where you don’t know the pastor all that well, or anyone else for that matter, make an effort to meet with your priest one on one. Not just in the hurried moments when he’s shaking everyone’s hands after Mass. Make an appointment, and introduce yourself and your family (you can take a photo along with you). Let him know the unique needs of your child(ren) that he should be aware of, but also the wonderful unique attributes of your child(ren) that may be overlooked if your child is non-verbal, anti-social, or struggles in ways that may hide his or her gifts from other causal observers. Now is not the time to ask for anything. Just introduce yourself and answer any of your priest's questions. It’s helpful to have a similar meeting with your parish's director of religious education coordinator before your child starts religious education classes.

When you open the lines of communication early, and the priest or others in the parish know who you are and what your child’s needs are, it becomes much easier down the road to ask for accommodations as a situation arises, such as preparing for a sacrament, or in modifying a physical aspect of the church. Unless someone has a disabled family member themselves, they will likely not understand how the church building could be inadequate for your child. And unless a student with your child’s exact diagnosis has prepared to receive her first Holy Communion at your parish, your pastor may not know the best way to help prepare your child.

When it comes time to ask for accommodations, know exactly what you want to ask for, and go prepared with resources and suggestions to support your case and give information. Again, it helps to ask in a one on one meeting, not in a casual conversation.

My family has been blessed with a parish community that has always stepped up to help us whether it was to add ramps, modify their religious education curriculum, or provide meals while one of my sons was in the hospital. Our church works to include our family whenever possible, and I never hesitate to reach out when we need help, either spiritually or with a physical need.

If your child does not have special needs, you can make your parish more welcoming by making an effort to reach out to new parents at Mass whose children may seem “unruly” but who may have autism or another disability that makes sitting through Mass difficult. You can allow special needs children to attend adult functions with their parents (choir practice, parish council meetings, etc) since finding adequate child care could make it impossible for those parents to participate otherwise. You can ask parents what specific prayer requests they have for their children, and follow up with them. Lastly, treat their children like any other children in the parish. Most children (and adults!) with disabilities just want to be treated like anyone else.

Catholic parishes can be welcoming to all—a place where the unique needs of each member are accepted and celebrated.

Parents of children with disabilities, you can be the advocate your child needs to help make your parish into a more welcoming place.

For those without disabled family members, you can listen and learn how to accommodate, and make your parish a better place in the process too.

Yours in Christ,

Kelly Mantoan


Kelly Mantoan is a Catholic wife, mother, homeschooler, caregiver, and the author of Better Than OK; Finding Joy as a Special Needs Parent, and the founder of Accepting the Gift, an apostolate for Catholic special needs parents. She blogs about her own unique Catholic family at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

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