The children’s educational program “Sesame Street” made national headlines in mid-March with its announcement that, beginning in April, new Muppet Julia would represent a young child with autism. For the 1 in 6 children diagnosed with a developmental disability — including autism — each year, and for their parents, this recognition and resource is no small thing.
This is especially true in a society where the numbers of those with disabilities is on the rise. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of individuals with developmental disabilities increased 17.1 percent from 1997 to 2008. This includes a 289.5 percent increase in the prevalence of autism.
While the Church has made progress over the years in developing a pastoral response to people with disabilities, it still has a way to go. Dioceses and parishes, faced with the very real burdens of lack of funding and training, are inconsistent in the programming and catechesis offered to people with disabilities. Though Catholic schools may welcome young people with disabilities, they often are strapped for resources to minister properly to them, especially compared to their public school counterparts. Leadership from the U.S. bishops, too, while present, has been uneven. The most comprehensive pastoral statement on persons with disabilities by the U.S. bishops was issued in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1998. (The bishops also released sacramental guidelines in 1995.) We, too, can do more. It is up to Catholics, individually and in parishes, to extend to persons with disabilities the love and mercy of Jesus.
Very effective is the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), founded in 1982. It was this group that authored this week’s essay on autism (Page 7) and reminded each of us of what it means to truly welcome those persons with disabilities. In the essay, the authors make an important point about reaching out to those with disabilities when they juxtapose the concepts of “inclusion” and “belonging.” They are saying that how we treat the “other” — the one who is different from us — is not a matter of charity but of justice. Rather than extending our arms to include, as if we are the only arbiters of who matters, we do better to recognize the inherent belonging of all the baptized to the Body of Christ, regardless of ability. It’s a powerful and important distinction that extends to any person we may perceive as being different.
Finally, no small matter can be made of the great courage, suffering and hard work that goes into both living with a disability and caring for those with a disability. In every way possible, persons with disabilities and their caretakers should be supported and encouraged by those in the Church. As we commemorate Jesus’ walk to Calvary this Holy Week, we are buoyed by the great grace that comes from his willingness to suffer selflessly for our salvation. Pope Francis last June reminded us of this paradoxical gift of suffering when it comes to those with disabilities. “It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment,” he said. “In some cases, we are even told that it is better to eliminate them as soon as possible, because they become an unacceptable economic burden in time of crisis. Yet what an illusion it is when people today shut their eyes in the face of sickness and disability! They fail to understand the real meaning of life, which also has to do with accepting suffering and limitations.”
May the rest of the Church continue to more deeply realize the authentic belonging of those with disabilities.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor